Following the Leader
It has been 2 years, 1 month, and 23 days since the Rangers traded Ryan McDonagh. It has been that same amount of time since the Rangers last had a captain. A few weeks before the Rangers traded their star defenseman, they sent a letter to their fans stating that they were going in a different direction and would lose some familiar faces. And so began the team's rebuild. From then until now the Rangers have been missing an identity; someone that is the true embodiment of what it means to be a New York Ranger. They are missing a leader. A player to build around. It's not that they are missing a player that does all of this stuff and they need to go out and trade for one or mold someone into becoming that guy. You see, they already have a player—who has been here since before the rebuild even began—that does all of this and much, much more. They just haven't realized or truly acknowledged it yet. This player's name is Mika Zibanejad.
When Zibanejad was first traded to the Rangers he was coming off his best season, having scored 51 points in 81 games played. Many fans were upset by this trade because Derick Brassard, who was coming off a career high 27 goals, went the other way to Ottawa in the trade. But looking back at it now Rangers fans definitely feel like they've won the trade as Zibanejad's point totals have gotten better every year since his first season in New York, while Brassard has steeply declined since then. Point totals don't mean everything when picking a captain, though. Mika has come a long way since being drafted 6th overall in 2011. Writers and Senators fans complained about how inconsistent Zibanejad was and that he was basically lazy. Here's a tweet from Bruce Garrioch, a columnist that covers the Sens, and some of the replies.
We all know that Mika has accomplished many great things in the past two years, including two 70-plus point campaigns both of which he scored at least 30 goals (41 this season !!!), an exciting and memorable five-goal night, fully legitimizing himself as a true first-line center, and my personal favorite, the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. Yeah I'm sure all those Senators fans are kicking themselves right now.
The goal of this rebuild is not to win just one Stanley Cup, it's to win multiple; to start a dynasty. Take a look at teams that have won multiple cups in recent years and see what they have in common. The Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins all had first-line centers. And they weren't just first-line centers, they were top players in the league and still are today. The Hawks have Jonathan Toews, the Kings have Anze Kopitar, and the Pens have Sidney Crosby. All three players are amazing offensively and are reliable on the defensive side too, with Toews and Kopitar (twice) both being winners of the Frank J. Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the best defensive forward. The final thing they have in common is that they are all captains of their teams. They are the captains not because of what their point totals say but because of what they do on the ice and in the dressing room. They are all players that their respective teams built around. All three teams gave their captains the tools necessary to succeed. Kane and Toews in Chicago. Kopitar and Doughty in Los Angeles. Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh. When the Blackhawks won in 2014-15, they had a very strong group of forwards, with four players scoring more than 50 points. They also had a steady defensive core, along with a capable goaltender. This is what the Rangers need to do with Mika Zibanejad.
Mika should be named captain before the start of next season. It would be a perfect transition from a rebuilder to a team that is ready to compete for a playoff spot, and eventually the Stanley Cup, every year. After naming him captain they need to give him all the tools to bring this team to the next level. They already have Panarin, but they need more depth. They hope Kaapo Kakko can grow into that first-line winger role, as well as the hope for Filip Chytil to turn into the second-line center of the future. But having a lot of talented prospects and hopefuls are not going to help until they are developed. Just look at the Buffalo Sabres. They have a superstar in their captain Jack Eichel, but there's no supporting cast. They have Sam Reinhart who seems to get better every year, a promising defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, and a goalie with some potential in Linus Ullmark, but that's about it. The end result is an endless cycle of new head coaches and general managers and ineptitude. They stockpiled so many assets and draft picks yet still managed to destroy their rebuild because they did not develop their prospects the right way and have not built around Eichel as a result. The Rangers need to prevent this from ever happening. Now that all the prospects are in place, they need to create their identity. The first step in doing that is to name Mika Zibanejad the captain.