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Rangers counting on Zibanejad to be consistent

Center admits he can be own worst enemy, trying to overcome mental block

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Sometimes, New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad just likes to talk for no other reason than it soothes him and makes him feel like he's being heard.

"It's good just talking and to have someone listen," Zibanejad said, "not just [offering] advice after advice after advice all the time."

Zibanejad likes to talk about anything, from family to hockey and everything in between. He talks with the Rangers sports psychologist about his role on the team, the pressures that come with it, and his place in the game. He talks to people outside the game, those still in the psychologist realm but not associated with a team or even the sport, because it's an avenue for him to explore his other interests, likes, dislikes or anything that might be bothering him.

"Hockey is every day and sometimes something else that you don't consciously think about is bothering you and it's good to have someone outside of hockey to talk to," Zibanejad said. "It's good to have some separation."

The separation, Zibanejad knows, only goes so far.

A huge part of his life is hockey. The Rangers have become an extension of his family. They're fully invested in him after signing him to a five-year, $26.75 million contract on July 25. They're making him their No. 1 center.

 

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"We expect him to be a top performer every night," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.

That's a lot for Zibanejad to talk about, but here's the rub:

The more Zibanejad talks or even thinks about his new role with the Rangers, about moving up the depth chart to the top spot, about the pressures that come with the expectation to deliver on his huge potential, to earn his $5.35 million per season, the bigger his mental block becomes.

"It's understandable that people are trying to make it bigger, but I've got to trick myself into not thinking that way," Zibanejad said.

Zibanejad isn't an easy study. He admits he can be his own worst enemy. When he thinks about who he is, where he is, what he's doing, how he's doing it and what everyone else might think of him, he becomes passive, safe and worries about making a mistake.

Zibanejad's game is predicated on being aggressive, using his big body to protect the puck and his skillset to drive offense.

He's never done it consistently in the NHL. The Rangers are counting on that to change.

It's a challenging situation for Zibanejad, to basically prove he can get out of his own head and play with a free mind, a free spirit. He knows it too.

"For me, this is a part of me not reading into things too much or thinking about it," Zibanejad said. "If I try to take every aspect that happens and try to figure that out, that's not going to help me."

What will help Zibanejad is knowing that by signing him to the contract and by trading center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes to make room for him to move up the depth chart, the Rangers believe in him.

"There's no doubt that if we gave Mika that long-term contract, with the money that we did, it's because we believe he can be the player," Vigneault said.

For Zibanejad, belief equals opportunity. So far it has equaled confidence too.

Video: PHI@NYR: Zibanejad knots score with great wrister

"I'm not stupid, so I can understand it's a great opportunity for me and it's a fun one," Zibanejad said. "I mean, who doesn't want to be in this situation? Even though it's tough and there will be a lot of added pressure from outside, for me it's just about staying within my game. They've seen things from me that they believe in. They have never said that I have to change in anyway. So, it's just going to be a better me, to be a better version of myself and to grow throughout the year. I'm going to go through some times where I have to learn from and get a new experience from, whether it's good or bad. Obviously hoping for more good than bad, but for me it's just to stay calm and believe in myself and play like I can, play the way I should."

That's all the Rangers want from Zibanejad.

They saw enough last season when he had 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 56 games, including 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 19 games before he broke his leg on Nov. 20 and had to miss 25 games, to put their faith in him.

The Rangers saw how he responded in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with a determined performance against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round after being subpar at best in Games 1 and 2.

Zibanejad's best performance as a Ranger may have come in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators in the second round, when he had an assist, six shots on goal and 10 total shot attempts in a 4-1 win.

It was after that game that Vigneault said this:

"We're going to be sitting here in a couple of years probably saying he was a real good player or we're going to say he never quite figured it out. That's part of him working at his game, working at his mental game, working with our sports psychologist trying to put it all together."

Now, nearly five months removed from that game, Vigneault has this to say:

"We believe he has the capability right now to put it together. I've said a few times about different players, sometimes younger players, they've got to figure it out. We believe with his experience and his skillset he's figured it out and he's going to be one of our key guys."

Talking won't make it happen.

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