The New York Rangers enter the offseason with a need to bolster their grit and toughness. There are plenty of talented depth pieces available in this free-agent class, but one of the best options is Casey Cizikas. The long-time New York Islanders’ center has been an integral piece on the rugged fourth line alongside Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Together, the trio has battered opposing defenses, enforcing their will and dictating the physical side of the game whenever they grace the ice.
A reliable, two-way forward, Cizikas enters free agency after a 2020-21 season where he tallied 14 points in 56 games. The 5-foot-11 forward registered 112 hits more impressively, a statistic that demonstrates the value he could bring to the Rangers’ predominantly skilled forward group. Adding Cizikas would be an impactful on-ice addition and a positive morale boost, stealing him from the Blueshirts’ biggest rival.
There is no secret that the Islanders have been one of the league’s most successful teams the last two seasons, in large part due to their ability to frustrate their opposition. Cizikas has played a major role in that process and would certainly add a layer of two-way responsibility to a core of which most players are still coming into their own.
On top of the physical element that the 30-year-old brings nightly, he is a valiant penalty killer, bolstering a Rangers penalty kill, which was already rising last season. They finished 10th in the NHL (82.3%) on the penalty kill, while Cizikas’ Islanders finished sixth (83.7%). A lot of the 10-year Islander’s game meshes perfectly with what the Rangers are currently missing right now.
If they were to go out and bring in the veteran center, he would become the oldest member of this forward group, adding leadership and much-needed playoff expertise to a ripening core.
What Will Cizikas Cost The Rangers?
On the heels of a five-year, $16.75 million contract, Cizikas enters the market as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. It’s safe to say that another five-year contract and that AAV is unlikely for the 30-year-old center this time around. Looking around the league, Garnett Hathaway and Cody Eakin’s contracts seem comparable to Cizikas’s situation.
Hathaway, at age 27, signed a four-year, $6 million contract with the Washington Capitals. With an AAV of just $1.5 million, His deal is definitely a bargain but results from a flat salary cap. Cizikas’s next contract won’t be immune to that flat cap either, and like his role-playing counterparts, he will, unfortunately, feel the repercussions of a post-COVID economy.
Just three months younger than Cizikas is Eakin, who before the 2020-21 season signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract per Cap Friendly. This contract is seemingly the best open market comparison for the Islanders’ center, who is undeniably more productive in his role than Eakin was for Buffalo. Even his linemate, Matt Martin, signed for a low $1.5 million AAV, electing a longer term of four years.
The Rangers could offer Cizikas a shorter AAV and mask that with signing bonuses, as they did with Artemi Panarin, but a shorter-term and shorter AAV is definitely in store for the forward. I would suspect a two-year contract worth between $2 – $2.5 million per year for the unrestricted free agent. He has a high face-off percentage for a physical role player, is a responsible penalty killer, and still registered seven goals in 56 games, putting him on a double-digit pace for an 82-game season.
Those factors should keep the contract amount from dipping too much, although age is undoubtedly a factor, especially with the grind-it-out style Cizikas plays.
Cizikas’s Role On The Rangers
The Islanders’ fourth line has been integral to their success in each of the past three seasons. Cizikas averaged 13:50 time on ice during the 2020-21 campaign, a significant chunk for a bottom-six forward. With players such as Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, and Vitali Kravtsov all expected to see minute boosts under new head coach Gerard Gallant, Cizikas will likely see himself in a more miniscule role on the Rangers.
“You give them the opportunity. Hopefully they take advantage of the opportunity and the ice time they get and excel with it,” he said. “I don’t think young players can sit on the fourth line and get a lot out of that.”-Gerard Gallant in his intruductory press conference, from (‘Takeaways from New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant and his development philosophy,’ by Vincent Z. Mercogliano of Lohud Sports – 06/22/21)
That statement by Gallant says it all; if young players won’t be buried on the fourth line and will be given the opportunities to succeed, then the fourth line’s minutes will be reduced, but their role will remain the same. Adding someone like Cizikas to the fourth line, even if he receives only 10-12 minutes per game, will afford the protection of the young stars and will give the Rangers a physical presence they have lacked for some time.
By signing Cizikas, the Rangers allow themselves the flexibility to retain their free agents and salary cap space permitting, bring in another big-bodied bruiser. He won’t be expensive; you’re stealing him from your biggest rival, and he can help remedy your face-off issues as well as your physicality issues. Cizikas is the perfect free-agent target for the Rangers this offseason.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!