I have a confession to make. I don’t know what to make of Mika Zibanejad’s season. I am conflicted about the way I have covered him from afar and through a computer screen this year. I don’t know whether I have been fair to him or not.
When he insisted through the first month or two of an impossibly bad start that he was not, most definitely not, experiencing after-effects from having contracted COVID-19 just before the start of training camp, I chose to take him at his word.
Of course there is a no-excuse clause in hockey. But I’d have hoped, and still do, that if he were struggling with post-virus symptoms, Zibanejad would have said so and not have worried that he’d have sounded as if he were searching for an alibi to explain away 3-8-11 production in the first 27 games in which he was worse than his stats.
Indeed, I have always thought that it would have been constructive for pro athletes compromised by virus after-effects to publicize them in order to better educate the public about the serious nature of the disease that some segments of our population have chosen to dismiss.
Of course, there is a right to privacy. Zibanejad, an eclectic fellow, has always struck me as a private person by nature. Proud and private. So there was that. There was also the prospect that Zibanejad was telling the truth. So I did not add the COVID-19 disclaimer to every analysis of as bad a start from an elite player as I can remember. Maybe I should have.
Immediately after the Swede began to snap out of it, mention was made that Zibanejad had reported to camp after losing a dramatic amount of weight over the offseason. Our best information now indicates that No. 93 indeed had radically changed his diet between leaving last summer’s bubble in Toronto and reporting to New York in January. That may have been a factor.
That is something we all would have recognized on the first day of training camp through the normal course of locker room interaction. It would have generated discussion. But there is no normal in covering a pro sports team these days. That is not a complaint, just reality. Much is lost. Zooms reveal little. To paraphrase the great Jim Bouton, hockey players generally won’t say cheese even if they have a mouthful of it.
So Zibanejad has broken out on the ice. He has recorded three hat tricks within the last 22 games. He has elevated his game. He has elevated his numbers to the point where he is nearly a point-a-game player on the season, 19-26-45 in 49 contests, and his shooting percentage has zoomed to 13.5, which represents the second-best of his career.
Did the 28-year-old finally get healthy six weeks into the season? Did he need all that time to rebuild his strength? It is an unanswerable question unless Zibanejad amends his story and provides additional information. If there is any, that is.
For now, we are all left to speculate, just as David Quinn, the head coach who finally benched his first-line center for nearly 11 minutes in New Jersey on March 4, did following Sunday’s 6-3 victory over the Sabres in which Zibanejad struck three times.
“People go through stretches in their career where things may not be going their way, and all great players go through it,” said Quinn, who himself contracted the virus in mid-March and was not behind the bench for either of Zibanejad’s six-point explosions eight days apart against the Flyers. “And you know, this is a unique year as we’ve all touched on, with COVID, and him getting COVID.
“People react differently to it, and I know what it’s done to me. I know you continue to feel some type of effect by it. Some people feel it longer than others, I’m not saying that was the only reason, but you never know. We knew it was just going to be a matter of time before he was going to find his game. He has certainly done that.”
Yes, he has. But, and this is a chord I have hit often, Zibanejad has done most of his damage against the soft underbelly of the division, recording seven goals in eight games against the Flyers, four in seven games against the Sabres and three in eight games against the Devils.
So, 14 goals in 23 games against the three teams behind the Blueshirts and only five in 26 matches — none in six vs. Boston, one in six vs. the Islanders, two in eight vs. Pittsburgh, two in six vs. Washington — against the upper echelon.
I am not sure what to make of this. I am not sure what to make of this stunning reversal of fortune. I am not sure what to make of Mika Zibanejad’s season.