Ottawa Senators: Revisiting the Zibanejad Trade

The Ottawa Senators have been known to mismanage their assets. One that stands out is the trade that involved Derick Brassard and Mika Zibanejad. On July 18, 2016, the Senators traded Zibanejad and a 2018 second-round pick (Jonatan Berggren) to the New York Rangers for Brassard and a 2018 seventh-round pick (Luke Loheit). The Berggren pick would not be used by the Rangers, but this trade was a win for New York from the start.

Mika Zibanejad was a Senator from 2011 to 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

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Hindsight is 20/20, but this trade dealt a major blow to the Senators and their progress towards becoming competitive. It gave the Rangers a legitimate star-forward who was on pace for 90 points and 50 goals before the 2019-20 season came to a pause. Brassard, who now plays for the Arizona Coyotes, did not live up to the potential he showed in Manhattan.

Prelude to the Trade

Leading up to the trade, Zibanejad had recorded his second straight 20-goal season and set a career-high in points. He was developing, albeit slowly, into the player that warranted his sixth-overall selection at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

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While Zibanejad was not viewed as a pure goal scorer, his shooting percentage was just under 11 percent for his career. His peak goal-scoring season was in 2015-16 with the Senators, when he scored 21 goals on an 11.4 shooting percentage. While higher than his average, it wasn’t a significant number. Still, it was possible to predict that he would be at least a 20-goal scorer in the prime of his career. He was 22 years old at the time and was just getting started.

Derick Brassard
Derick Brassard was a Ranger from 2013 to 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Brassard, who was drafted sixth overall in 2006 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, was traded to the Rangers as part of the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to the Blue Jackets on April 3, 2013. Through his 254 games as a Ranger, he scored 174 points, including one 60-point season in 2014-15. He was a good player, but with red flags.

Brassard was 28 years old at the time of the trade, already in his prime, and six years older than Zibanejad. Furthermore, his best year in New York was the 2015-16 season, when he scored close to a 15 percent rate. This was a three percent increase on his career average at the time.

Derick Brassard’s reaction to the trade via former Senator Marc Methot’s Twitter

While Brassard had the talent to be a consistent NHL player, his 27-goal season was influenced by a higher shooting percentage and the result of better luck. He was also born across the river from Ottawa in Hull, Quebec and was very excited to be joining the Sens.

Money Always Talks

While Zibanejad and Brassard were having career seasons, Ottawa had their reasons for moving on from the young Swedish centreman. The Senators and Rangers were both having salary cap issues. The Senators didn’t have the cash to acquire or re-sign their star players, but they did have the flexibility to take on big cap hits that represented little cash. The Rangers had several high-profile restricted free agents (RFA) like Chris Kreider, who they needed to sign while shedding salary in the process.

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From a business perspective, the trade made sense. Zibanejad was an RFA after the 2016-17 season and he was coming off of a cheap contract worth $2.625 million per season. The final year of the contract was worth $3.25 million in salary, and he was due for a significant raise. Brassard carried a big cap hit of $5 million but was only owed $3.5 million in salary during the last two seasons. Financially, trading the two wasn’t a bad idea, but it was not a good hockey deal.

The Pieces That Were Dealt

Five years later, the trade continues to look worse for Ottawa. Zibanejad has become the first-line centre that they had hoped he would be. In 323 games as a Ranger, he has scored 283 points and hit a career-high 41 goals during the 2019-20 season. He’s an alternate captain and has established himself as part of the Rangers’ one-two punch alongside Artemi Panarin.

Related: New York Rangers Should Make Signing Zibanejad a Priority

The second-round pick that Ottawa sent to New York ended up in the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. The Rangers traded the pick for defenseman Brendan Smith in 2017. The Red Wings later drafted Swedish centre Jonatan Berggren 33rd overall in 2018 and he currently plays with Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish Hockey League.

Jonatan Berggren Sweden
Jonatan Berggren (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Brassard’s tenure in Ottawa was largely underwhelming. His first season (2016-17) was not as advertised or expected by management. With only 39 points in 81 games, his previous success was forgotten, especially in the eyes of the tougher Canadian media.

While he was unluckier than in past seasons, only shooting at seven percent, it was still unacceptable. However, his regular season was overlooked due to his performance during the Senators’ run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final. His 11 points in the postseason were tied for third on the team.

Derick Brassard (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The following season was much better. At the time Brassard was traded away, he had 38 points in 58 games and he was displaying why he was so highly touted in both Columbus and New York. However, it was too late as Ottawa had hit rock bottom, and began to trade away assets.

His time in Ottawa ended on Feb. 23, 2018, when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had 77 points in his 139 games as a Senator. The package they got from the Penguins helped redeem general manager Pierre Dorion. Brassard was disappointing as a Penguin, and only stayed in Pittsburgh until the following trade deadline when he was sent to the Florida Panthers. He made another stop with the Colorado Avalanche, before becoming a New York Islander in 2019. He was having a decent comeback year in Long Island with 32 points in 66 games before the 2019-20 season was paused.

The seventh-round pick Ottawa acquired was used on American-born winger Luke Loheit. He is currently playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, where he had a lacklustre rookie season (2019-20) with five goals and six points in 33 games. This past season was no better, posting three goals and five points in 28 games.

Final Thoughts

By looking at the names involved in this trade, you know it’s one that the Sens lost and by a wide margin. It may be easy to say that the Rangers robbed the Senators, but you must also consider the mitigating factors that were involved. No matter how you feel about the Senators’ financial situation, hockey is still a business.

In order to run a franchise, especially one like Ottawa, you must make decisions that make the most of your available funds. This trade was based on a business decision that blew up in their face. I’m not defending this trade. It is the worst one in Dorion’s tenure and among the worst in Sens history. With that said, there was more involved in the trade than just getting rid of Zibanejad for Brassard.