New York Rangers: Picking Zibanejad over Hayes may be a mistake

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20: Mika Zibanejad
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20: Mika Zibanejad /
NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 20: Mika Zibanejad
NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 20: Mika Zibanejad /

The New York Rangers’ front office may be making a mistake in choosing to prioritize Mika Zibanejad over Kevin Hayes for the long term.

In any salary cap sport, cap space ultimately forces a team to swallow a bitter pill in personnel choices. The New York Rangers had to choose between retaining Derek Stepan on a no trade clause or signing Kevin Shattenkirk during the summer of 2017. In an ideal world the team would have been able to keep the two way pivot and bring in the New Rochelle native to make one last push at the Stanley Cup.

Instead, New York sent Stepan along with Antti Raanta to Arizona in exchange for the seventh overall pick and defenseman Tony DeAngelo. That was not an easy decision to make being how much success Stepan had in New York and how instrumental he was in the team returning to contender status. However, the team had to prioritize between two of Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and Stepan following the 2016-2017 season.

Now, with the prospect of a long term rebuild looming, Ranger’s General Manager Jeff Gorton has tipped his hand in regards to the team’s priorities. With the prospect of Zibanejad being an unrestricted free agent following the 2018-2019 season, Gorton chose to pay a little more money up front to keep the center long term.

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Faced with a similar proposition this summer, Gorton chose to give Hayes a one year bridge deal. Whether or not this is simply a stop gap contract for future trade bait or a prove it deal remains to be seen. There are a few differences between Hayes and Zibanejad which makes Gorton’s priorities clear.

The problem

Going into his third season as a member of the New York Rangers, Zibanejad has shown flashes of a number one center. In his first two years with the club, the Swedish center has gotten off to nuclear hot starts posting nearly point per game figures before hitting an injury wall. In his first year, Zibanejad broke his fibula. This past season, Zibanejad suffered a concussion which kept him out of the lineup for nearly two weeks.

In both cases the Swede was lighting it up at both even strength and serving as the team’s trigger man on the power play. However, his inability to stay healthy over the course of an entire NHL season is a major cause for concern. In the case of an elite player, sometimes simply the best ability is availability. No matter how good of a player Zibanejad is, if he’s in the press box wearing a suit, he’s not helping the Rangers win.

In the case of Hayes, the situation is a little more peculiar. There is a legitimate argument that the Boston native has simply suffered a case of miscasting. Since the former Boston College Eagle joined the Rangers he has been bounced around in a variety of roles. To give Hayes credit, he has managed to develop a quality two way game on the fly in a bad situation.

As for Hayes in the long term, it remains to be seen if he can put together his well rounded offensive game with a 200 foot game over the course of an entire season. For the 6’5 center, consistent output has always been an issue even though his final counting stats at the end of the season still look pretty good. Although the laziness argument is lazy and unfounded in Hayes’ case, there is an argument that he does disappear from games at times.

The cost

Simply put, Gorton may have chosen Zibanejad over Hayes because it was a penny smart decision. As of the moment, Hayes probably holds more value on the trade market and Zibanejad is on an extremely cheap contract. By paying the Swede more up front, the overall palatability of the contract is more tolerable.

As for Hayes, as an unrestricted free agent he could probably command north of $6 million on the open market. Using a combination of Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Paul Stastsny as a barometer of the market for two way center puts that number realistically in play for Hayes. It is not a stretch to imagine that with power play time and less defensive zone starts that Hayes could sniff 60 points.

The injury bug has prevented Zibanejad from putting together a full season. When the Swedish center was on his game in the past, he played at a 65 point season clip. At only $5.35 million per season as compared to a potential Hayes deal, Gorton may have saved some money from the team’s bottom line.

The argument for Hayes

In all seriousness, neither Hayes or Zibanejad has reached their respective prime as professionals. Although Hayes posted a career high in goals this past season at age 26, forwards typically reach their maximum level of offensive production at age 28 according to the CBC. Aside from being two years older than Zibanjead, Hayes also has the burden of playing more of the game in the defensive end of the ice against tougher competition.

The fact that Hayes still manages to produce at a comparable level to Zibanejad in spite of their usage differences should serve as a major factor in decision making. With a competent head coach who puts his players in a position to succeed instead of randomly picking a lineup should do both centers wonders.

It is worth noting that Zibanejad has a no trade clause that kicks in on July 1st of 2019. The same exact scenario in the case of Stepan forced the team’s hand to make a trade. Although the team is in a different cap situation now, there is precedent to work with. The front office could ultimately decide to sign Hayes long term during the season if he lights it up.

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The Ranger’s G.M is in the difficult position of needing to overhaul more than half of the team’s roster for the long haul. In addition to needing at least three more quality defenseman, Gorton also needs to compliment his young guys with a dynamic game breaking veteran. Both Hayes and Zibanejad present different types of opportunities for the long term. Ultimately, this will likely be a one or the other type situation, in choosing Zibanejad, Gorton may be making a mistake.