Mika Zibanejad had a breakout season for the New York Rangers in 2018-19, and he is playing even better this season. Unfortunately for the Blueshirts, he is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2021-22 season when his five-year, $26.75 million contract expires. While the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents them from extending him now, they will be able to sign a new contract on July 1, 2021, the summer before he would become a free agent. The team should work on re-signing their star center long before his contract expires because they cannot risk losing him.
Zibanejad Has Steadily Improved
In 2016-17, Zibanejad’s first season with the Rangers, he finished with 14 goals and 23 assists in 56 games. He showed promise but slumped after missing an extended period of time with a broken leg. Still, he delivered in the postseason with strong play as well as two goals and seven assists. He even scored a clutch overtime goal against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
During the 2017-18 season, Zibanejad was able to produce offensively with more consistency when he was healthy but once again he missed time due to an injury; this time a concussion. He finished with 27 goals (including multiple overtime goals) and 20 assists in 72 games. He was named an alternate captain in the offseason.
Last season Zibanejad got off to a hot start and never looked back. Despite playing on a team that was sorely lacking offensive talent, he produced offensively all season for the Blueshirts. He also managed to avoid injuries and played all 82 games for the first time in his career. His health and stellar play led to a career-high 30 goals and a career-high 44 assists. He also developed into one of the team’s best defensive forwards and excelled on the penalty kill.
This season Zibanejad has kept the momentum going. He has continued his strong defensive play and is producing even more offensively. He once again had to deal with an injury, and missed 13 games, but picked up right where he left off when he returned. He already has 33 goals and 33 assists in just 53 games.
Rangers’ Rebuild is Coming to an End
The Rangers are no longer a team in the middle of a rebuild. They are transitioning to a team that can win now, thanks to Zibanejad’s steady rise, along with the acquisition of Artemi Panarin, and the impressive play of multiple rookies.
The Blueshirts re-signed key forward Chris Kreider to a seven-year contract extension just before the trade deadline, after months of rumors that he would be traded. The Rangers should not allow contract talks with Zibanejad to come down to the wire. He has developed into an elite center, who is one of the team’s best players at both ends of the ice. New York should begin trying to lock him up with an extension immediately.
Rangers Have Multiple Contracts that Expire After 2020-21 Season
While the Rangers don’t have much cap room right now, they will soon have a lot more. Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, and Brendan Smith all have contracts that will end after next season. The Blueshirts will pay Kevin Shattenkirk (who was bought out by the team) $4.65 million less in 2021-22 than they must pay him next season. That, along with the expiring contracts, will give the team more than $20 million in cap space heading into 2021-22 and beyond.
A chunk of that cap space should be put aside for an extension for Zibanejad.
The Rangers need to plan ahead and figure out a way to keep their best players. They have already signed Panarin, Kreider and Jacob Trouba to long-term deals.
The Rangers traded Brady Skjei for a first-round pick at the trade deadline and can use the money they saved in the trade to sign defenseman Tony DeAngelo to an extension.
If not this season, the Rangers should be ready to compete for a postseason berth by next season, and their young stars have them poised for long-term success. Losing their top center would shatter those plans.
Zibanejad is a leader, a star and one of the main reasons the Rangers are competing for a playoff spot just two seasons after they announced they were beginning to rebuild.
Zibanejad and Kreider have steadily improved during their time as Blueshirts. The team showed their faith in Kreider by signing him to a long-term extension. Now it’s time for them to put their faith in Zibanejad and make sure he remains a Ranger long after his current contract expires.