GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- Mika Zibanejad admits the past two seasons have been tough for the New York Rangers, but he says the future appears to be bright.
A big part of that future will take shape at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver on June 21-22. The Rangers, who have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2016-17 season, own nine picks, including No. 2, where they are expected to select either center Jack Hughes, the No. 1 player in Central Scouting's list of North American skaters, or forward Kaapo Kakko, No. 1 among International skaters. The New Jersey Devils have the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
"When you have a draft pick that high -- and you know how good the players are, I've seen them both play -- obviously you are excited and look forward to it," said Zibanejad, himself a first-round pick (No. 6) by the Ottawa Senators in the 2011 NHL Draft. "But you know that you need to be patient as well. It's a tough transition (to the NHL), and some players handle it better than others. You don't know until it really happens. Hopefully, everything will settle and whatever happens will be the best for the team"
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The Rangers are in the middle of a rebuild, which they announced in February 2018 before trading defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forwards J.T. Miller and Rick Nash. This season, they traded forwards Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes before the NHL Trade Deadline and finished 32-36-14, 20 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference under first-year coach David Quinn.
"It's been tough, a lot of ups and downs. We were pretty good at the beginning of the year and it felt good until Christmas or the All-Star break. We really had a chance (to reach the playoffs)", Zibanejad said. "If you look at the roster and compare with others, we might not have had the highest expectations, even though we were aiming for playoffs. It felt very good, then happened what we expected to happen (with trades and players leaving). It was tough. We lost friends and players on the team.
"It is important to look a bit long term as well, but you are never satisfied even if your result was a bit better than the previous year. You want to win, that's why you are playing".
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Watching highlights and keeping up with the scores from the ongoing Stanley Cup Playoffs provides motivation for Zibanejad. He is now back in Sweden working out and preparing for the upcoming season but would much rather be playing for the Cup.
"That's where you want to be and at times you feel that we had a chance," said Zibanejad, who had nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 12 postseason games with the Rangers in 2017. "There were some games we felt could have ended differently and then we would have made it. But losing so many games isn't bad luck, but maybe some lack of experience and coolness in certain situations.
"Sometimes you need to go through these situations and try to get better in the end. You can't be satisfied for being close. Right now, we are trying to find our identity within the team and organization".
Zibanejad had an NHL career-high 74 points (30 goals, 44 assists) in 82 games this season. The 26-year-old led the Rangers in goals, assists, points, power-play goals (11), game-winning goals (five) and was called upon throughout the season to help shut down other teams' top lines defensively.
"There is always stuff to improve. But I think it's just to continue what I did last summer, with preparation, training and the mental side of it. It's nice to have found a way. I'm just gonna' try to do it a little bit better," Zibanejad said.
While Zibanejad works this summer to be even better next season, the Rangers will do the same. First at the Draft, where they have four picks in the first two rounds (Nos. 2, 20, 49 and 58), and then through possible trades and the free agency signing period that begins July 1.
"I'm lucky that I just can focus on what I'm going to do. You can only affect your own work," Zibanejad said. "It doesn't help hoping or watching what someone else are doing. You just want to be as prepared as possible so that you don't have any regrets later on."