Mika Zibanejad knew even before signed with the Rangers that the opportunity was there to take on a larger role this upcoming season.
The departure of Derek Stepan to Arizona last month left the door open for Zibanejad to take over the center spot on the team's top line. That looks even more like reality after Zibanejad signed a five-year deal that will pay the 24-year-old $5.35M per season, thus avoiding arbitration.
"I think even before signing, seeing Derek being traded was a little bit of an alert to me that I might get a chance to play a bigger role," Zibanejad told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday. "As a player, you always want more responsibility and a bigger role. It's something that I'm working really hard to make sure that I'm … taking advantage of the chance I'm getting."
As it stands now, Zibanejad is expected to be the team's top pivot, with Kevin Hayes slotted onto the second line. Free agent signee David Desharnais could fill out the third line role, while the final spot being earned in training camp.
Zibanejad, who had 14 goals and 37 points in season that was limited to just 56 games due to a leg injury, said despite what line he's penciled into, the goal every summer is to improve from the season before.
"For myself, you always want to improve. You always want to evolve," he said. "There's always been moments where you feel you can take your game to the next level, and that's what I'm working on during the summer. [I'm] trying to do all the things I can do to prepare myself for this opportunity."
"I don't think there's a single guy out there who would say no to an opportunity like this," Zibanejad added. "I'm super, super happy and excited about the next season."
The move from Ottawa, where Zibanejad spent the first five seasons of his NHL career, to New York was a change the young center enjoyed. He of course did his research on the Big Apple, but after one year he said the city life was something he's looking forward to continue living.
"I loved it," Zibanejad said of playing in New York. "It's the same [as Ottawa] but it's different in a few ways. I think people talk about how it is and to prepare myself mentally for how it is to play in New York and in front of the fans. It was as I expected and as I was prepared for and I loved it. That's why … I'm so excited to be back and to have this deal done."
Zibanejad said that while it was hard to see players like Stepan and Antti Raanta moved, he likes what the team has done to improve upon last year's club, which Zibanejad said he felt could have done more.
"You never want to see teammates leave, but obviously I'm happy with the addition of [Kevin] Shattenkirk," Zibanejad said. "I'm just super excited. As a group, we were disappointed in how the season ended last year. We felt like we had a good group and good team to go further than we did."
That, though, is in the past.
Zibanejad's excitement at the road ahead was evident to the point he apologized for repeating himself as much as he did. The negotiations are through and the ink is just about dry. Now, the next chapter for Zibanejad begins.
"I'm just super happy this deal got done," he said, "and super happy to be staying in New York for the next five years."