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With Breakout Year Behind Him, Mika is Hungry for More

Rangers See 'Another Level' for No. 1 Center

by Michael Obernauer

Mika Zibanejad says he isn't quite sure how he'll react once the milestone arrives, but it is going to arrive, and quick. If all goes according to plan, when the Boston Bruins come into Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27, the Rangers will play Game No. 9 of their 2019-20 season, and Zibanejad will play Game No. 500 of his NHL career. Not bad for a guy who doesn't even turn 27 years old until after the regular season.

"It's crazy to think that," Zibanejad said on Monday. "I thought about that just the other day, I don't know how it came up - but I'm thinking I'm 26 and I can't believe it's my eighth year coming up."

He knows that if not for injury - a broken leg in November 2016 cost him two months of the 2016-17 season - he would have surpassed 500 by now. No matter, Zibanejad said: "I want to play 500 more."

Given his trajectory since a July 2016 trade to New York, given his performance all of last season, given what he sees all around him as he begins his fourth Training Camp with the Rangers, Zibanejad wants nothing more than to achieve all his upcoming milestones in a Blueshirt. Since being drafted sixth overall by Ottawa in 2011, Zibanejad played the first 281 games of his NHL career as a Senator and the next 210, and counting, on Broadway, where he already has surpassed his scoring numbers in 71 more games as a Sen.

In 2018-19 he hit the 30-goal mark for the first time while reaching career highs in all scoring categories (30-44--74), his 74 points leading a Rangers team for whom he was the only player to appear in all 82 games. He had multiple points in 21 of those.

It was a coming-out season that grabbed attention all over the National Hockey League, after which Head Coach David Quinn and General Manager Jeff Gorton each expressed his belief that Zibanejad was "just scratching the surface." As good as it was, Zibanejad is not satisfied.

"I can't live on and what I did last year, absolutely not," Zibanejad told on Monday. "I do think there's definitely a comfort level in my game where I finally found what I need to do, and how I should play, and I just feel more confident that I can do it. And when I do it, now I see what happens."

What happened a season ago was that Zibanejad became one of the players his rookie Head Coach could rely on time and again, a near point-per-game centerman who finished in the top 20 among NHL forwards in ice time, at 20:34 a night. Over his first six seasons Zibanejad's TOI average had never topped 18 minutes.

This time around, while Quinn has been busy collecting first impressions of the rookies and the newcomers who are here in camp, he already has gotten a formidable second impression from his top center.

"He's started very well. He's just built off of what he established last year," Quinn said on Monday. "Obviously I wasn't here for his first two years here, but everybody talks about the changes he made as a player, and his off-ice conditioning, and it is certainly reflected in his performance on the ice. I think he's brought that to another level this year."

What has the Rangers even more confident about Zibanejad's continued ascent is the prospect of linking him up on a line with Artemi Panarin, the lethal left winger who signed on July 1. With preseason games beginning on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden against New Jersey, and continuing with games Friday and Saturday, Panarin, Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich are slated to begin the preseason as the team's top unit. This early on, that is far from a binding commitment, but Zibanejad is eager for the experiment.

"Obviously he's a great player with unbelievable skill and hockey IQ, and just the hockey sense he has," Zibanejad said of Panarin. "When you have a guy like Panarin on your side, you want to be able to get him to puck, and if I can focus on doing that and doing a good job defensively, being on the right side, chances are going to be created for him, but for me as well, and for us as a line."

Coming off of last season, Zibanejad admitted that "I know there's pressure from the outside, but I'm not going to let that affect me. I know it's a long season" - which was his way of saying he won't fall into the trap of overemphasizing "the first 10 games or so" of an 82-game season. This may be easier for a player like Zibanejad, who has never gone 10 games into a season without a goal; in fact, only three times in his seven full NHL seasons has he gone even three games into the new schedule without scoring.

But that kind of measured approach is something Zibanejad said he learned gradually as he broke into the League at age 18, from veterans such as Daniel Alfredsson, the former Senators captain and a fellow Swede. "Just the calmness of it, or just knowing what there is to expect and being able to take it in, not get surprised," he said. "When you're a young guy you don't know what to expect."

"He has a great demeanor about him," Quinn said. "He is an emotional guy on the ice, but I think when there's a little bit of adversity, when good things are happening or bad things are happening, he's got a great way about him to keep it kind of even-keeled. That's a great trait to have in a long hockey season."

That season gets going in earnest on Oct. 3 at the Garden, with the Winnipeg Jets as the visitors on Opening Night - and once it does, the Rangers could potentially have two different 26-year-olds reach their 500th games this year (Ryan Strome is 79 away). Zibanejad has been looking forward to that opener all summer, much of which he spent back home in Sweden, and during which time he "kinda updated Twitter quite often" to keep a close eye on all the offseason additions his team was making. "Super happy with the moves that we've made and the players that we acquired and all the young guys that are coming in," Zibanejad said. "It is exciting. It's hard not to be excited.

"Everyone seems to be excited and pushing each other, and everyone wants to be here," he said. "We're just having some fun right now. This is a good start."

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