For the rebuilding New York Rangers, things haven’t gotten too expensive just yet.
Sure, the Blueshirts’ payroll next season will be a bit tight, thanks in part to ugly buyouts and potential bonus payments to some of the club’s promising young players on entry-level contracts. Yet, the salary-cap situation improves considerably the following season – space that will be much-needed as the Rangers presumably start to lock up a good portion of a future core.
The Rangers, however, already know who three of those players are. As such, they’ll be expected to play a central role in the team’s return to playoff contention. And perhaps not coincidentally, that trio possesses three of the best contracts on the Rangers’ payroll – despite the wide range in annual average value amongst the group.
Here’s a look at the Blueshirts’ most advantageous pacts for the upcoming season:
The No. 1 center’s deal isn’t just the best bargain on the Rangers’ roster – it’s among the best in the NHL. Mika Zibanejad has emerged as a star over the past two seasons, making him absurdly underpaid at $5.35 million per for the next two seasons.
Zibanejad has nearly been a point-a-game player since signing a five-year, $26.75 million extension in July 2017 after being robbed from the Ottawa Senators along with a second-round draft pick for Derick Brassard and a seventh-rounder the previous summer, averaging 0.93 points per contest in 211 games. His 30 goals and 44 assists in 2018-19 represented career highs before he reached spectacular new heights this past season.
Zibanejad was arguably the best player in the league at the time of the shutdown due to the pandemic, piling up 23 goals and 15 assists over his final 23 games. That scorching stretch included a five-goal masterpiece capped by an overtime tally in the Rangers’ 6-5 victory over the Washington Capitals on March 5. He completed the season with an astounding 41 goals and 34 assists in 57 games.
The 27-year-old’s rise to bonafide top center status represents one of the great successes of general manager Jeff Gorton’s tenure – which looks even better considering the team-friendly contract on which he’s been playing. Zibanejad should be set to double his current salary when his deal expires after the 2021-22 season. He’ll deserve it, given the bang for the buck he’s delivered the Rangers since arriving four years ago.
The prized free agent of the 2019 offseason chose the Rangers, and he didn’t come cheap. The dynamic left wing is set to make $11.6 million for each of the next six seasons – the kind of financial commitment that makes it tough to manage a roster in the best of times, let alone during an era of flat salary caps thanks to the pandemic.
So why classify this contract as among the Rangers’ best? Because Artemi Panarin earned every penny of it in 2019-20, playing the biggest role in the transformation of the Blueshirts’ offense into a considerably more lethal force. His career highs of 32 goals and 63 assists in the shortened season powered a club that finished fifth in the NHL with 3.33 goals per game, and his versatile, high-energy style lifted the games of his teammates.
The recently-turned 29-year-old also thrived playing on a different line than Zibanejad after the two briefly teamed up to start the season, giving coach David Quinn the added bonus of breaking up his two best forwards for the purposes of top-six balance and depth. Panarin will continue to be counted on to be one of the primary drivers of offense for the Blueshirts.
If the aptly nicknamed Bread Man can even approach the production of his first season on Broadway, his expensive contract will represent one of the best signings in team history – and amazingly enough, look like a major bargain.
The top overall pick in the 2020 draft has, of course, not played a shift for the Rangers yet. No matter – adding the consensus top talent in the draft who’s expected to make the team out of training camp and will play for $925,000 on an entry-level contract represents one of the best deals on the Blueshirts’ books next season. That’s misleading, of course – Alexis Lafreniere can earn up to $2.85 million in performance bonuses in each season of his three-year deal.
Even so, the contract would still prove to be a big winner for the team if Lafreniere is hitting bonus triggers with his production. Compared to Sidney Crosby in terms of style of play and talent level, the Rangers are getting a big, dynamic, playmaking forward who will ostensibly be only scratching the surface of his potential while getting paid a relative pittance.
Lafreniere could find his way onto the club’s top line next season, perhaps alongside Zibanejad. Should he produce at even a decent level as a rookie, he’ll more than earn the meager salary (again, relative) that awaits him through 2022-23.
Zibanejad, Panarin Can Shield Lafreniere Early On
The Rangers’ top center and best winger carried the club offensively last season, eventually pushing a top-heavy team into the NHL’s expanded playoffs. The youthful Blueshirts might need more of the same next season as Lafreniere finds his footing, with Zibanejad and Panarin theoretically removing pressure to produce right away off of the 19-year-old. Providing offensive cover for young players while they develop was one of the reasons the Rangers signed Panarin, and that thinking looked even better once the Blueshirts won the right to draft Lafreniere.
The Rangers’ three best contracts are possessed by three of their most important players. As a result, the team certainly hopes Zibanejad, Panarin and Lafreniere maintain that status next season and beyond.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.