Minutes before his arbitration hearing, Mika Zibanejad and the New York Rangers agreed to a five-year, $5.35 million contract that will basically ensure Zibanejad’s spot on the top line for the Blueshirts.
At face value, the deal seems simple; the Rangers are extending terms to a young, exciting player for the long-haul while betting on his talent. It shows their faith in Zibanejad to be an important member of their next Stanley Cup runs. However, this extension is representative of (what looks like) a policy change for the Rangers, as well as a guideline to how Jeff Gorton and company will finish this offseason.
A Smart Bet
Signing the 24-year-old Zibanejad to a five-year deal is a smart bet on both sides. For the Rangers, they get what will likely be his best seasons at an affordable rate for his talent level. For Zibanejad, he gets a chance to cash in on free agency at 29 years of age; and teams will likely be knocking down his door if he plays well.
Zibanejad’s 2016-17 season was sidelined by a broken leg, but he was a good player when he was on the ice:
Zibanejad was in the Top 3 for NYR in most of the stats I tracked last year. Zone entries, passing & high danger plays stood out the most. pic.twitter.com/b1CHI8iNeV
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) July 25, 2017
He was one of the Rangers’ best forwards last season. He passed and entered the zone well and got into high danger areas. In 56 games played, he notched 37 points, which was good for 0.661 points per game, fifth on the Rangers. He is rising closer and closer to first line status as well:
Mika Zibanejad – steadily creeping towards first line territory. May just be that with Stepan gone. pic.twitter.com/ua7AE2bNuz
— dom ? (@domluszczyszyn) July 25, 2017
Last season, he was a part of an excellent line, centering Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. They combined for a 54.3% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage, and they will likely see plenty of time together next season, which should be good for all of them.
Zibanejad is also a valuable power play piece, with eleven points on the man advantage despite playing in only 56 games; other Rangers who topped the ten-point mark on the power play played between 75 and 81 games. With a full season, and new power play quarterback, Kevin Shattenkirk, feeding him passes, those eleven points will grow.
No Bridge Deal for Zibanejad
One of the main concerns before this long-term deal was signed was that the Rangers would offer Zibanejad a bridge deal; a short deal in lieu of a long-term deal, in order to, for lack of a better term, prove that they deserve a big extension. While that sounds good in theory, it can actually be quite costly in the long run.
It has hurt the Rangers in the past, and will likely hurt the Rangers again, as soon as next offseason. Players like Zibanejad used to receive bridge deals from the Rangers, as did Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes and J.T Miller.
Stepan signed a two-year, $3.075 million bridge deal after his entry level contract (ELC) expired prior to the 2013-14 season. He turned that into a six-year, $6.5 million deal prior to the 2015-16 campaign. That bridge deal was incredibly costly for the Rangers. If they had extended him long-term after his ELC, it would have been cheaper than his long-term deal, and he might still be on Broadway instead of Arizona.
Both Miller and Hayes inked bridge contracts prior to the 2016-17 seasons, coming in at two years, $2.75 million, and two years, $2.6 million, respectively. They are both restricted free agents (RFA) next year but are likely due for big raises. That is where things get tricky.
Besides Miller and Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei are both RFAs after the season is over. At the end of the 2018-19 season, captain Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello are unrestricted free agents (UFA), and Pavel Buchnevich is an RFA. If they extend Miller and Hayes to more team-friendly deals, they might be able to keep both, but as it looks now, one (or possibly both) will be cap casualties, considering their long-term asks will likely be significant.
The Zibanejad contract is a step in the right direction for the Rangers. With important players like Skjei, Buchnevich, and (to a lesser extent) Vesey ending their ELCs soon, the Rangers have a chance to lock these players down to affordable, long-term deals in the vein of Zibanejad. That allows them to have more cap flexibility in the future, as well as being able to keep more of their young and talented players.
Chris Kreider has a similar deal to Zibanejad. He signed a four-year, $4.625 million deal prior to the 2016-17 season and it looks like a steal. Had the Rangers offered him a bridge deal, chances are he’d be too rich for the Rangers’ blood when it is over.
While Zibanejad and Kreider are only two examples, they are two positive steps that Gorton is taking.
A Sudden Cap Crunch
One of the positive returns on the Stepan trade was cap space, but that is all but gone now. After signing Shattenkirk and Zibanejad, the Rangers are suddenly close to the cap, with a projected $455,556 of cap space on opening night, despite the fact that they are still thin at center.
With the glut of defensemen the Rangers have, and the tight cap space they are looking at, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks discussed how trading Nick Holden or buying out Marc Staal are legitimate possibilities. This would further improve the blue line as neither player is any good, and the Rangers have some exciting young players (namely Alexei Bereglazov, Neal Pionk, and Anthony DeAngelo) ready to step in:
Both players are replaceable and Staal specifically carries an indefensible cap hit ($5.7 million for the next four years). In order to adequately add to their center depth, they may have to get rid of one of these defensemen, in turn giving a younger player a shot in the lineup.
The Zibanejad extension is more than just a five-year extension. It locks up a supremely talented player for a long time, while taking further steps away from the bridge deals the Rangers used to frequently give out. It likely means one of Nick Holden or Marc Staal are gone, but that is a small price to pay for Jeff Gorton and the Rangers.
Note: PPG totals from Quant Hockey, Corsi from datarink, power play points from Puckbase.