The next big contract decision: Mika Zibanejad

With the entire New York Rangers team signed for 2020-21 the team can focus on the net big contract negotiation with Mika Zibanejad

Mika Zibanejad is signed through the 2021-22 season, but if the New York Rangers want to avoid an ugly John Tavares/Taylor Hall scenario, they will need to get him to sign an extension next summer.  That makes this coming season a huge challenge for both Zibanejad and the Rangers.

In 2019-20, the Swedish center established himself as one of the best players in the NHL.  Look at the numbers.  41 goals and 34 assists for 75 points in only 57 games. Here’s how good he was compared to the rest of the NHL:

  • First in goals per game average with 0.72
  • Third with 15 power play goals
  • Fifth with 41 goals
  • Fifth most ice time among forwards averaging 21:38 minutes per game
  • Sixth in first goals of a game with six.
  • Seventh in power play points with 27
  • Seventh best with a points per game average of 1.32.
  • Eighth among forwards in shorthanded time on ice with a 2:37 average
  • 10th  with six game winning goals

When the season ended prematurely, he had  been on a torrid goal scoring pace.  In his last 13 games he scored an amazing 17 goals including a franchise record-tying five goals on March 5 against the Capitals.

He got to the 40 goal plateau faster than any other Ranger in team history.  He was the first Ranger to score 12 goals in 13 games. With two straight four points games to start the season, he was the sixth player in NHL history to accomplish that feat.

Zibanejad’s challenge

With a huge payday looming,  when it comes to the Rangers,  this is Zibanejad’s “walk year.”   The key question is whether Zibanejad can improve on what was his best season in the NHL.   Turning 28 in April, Zibanejad is in his prime and if he picks up where he left off, he will be ready to enter the salary stratosphere.

There’s no reason to believe that he can’t do it.  In each of his first four years in New York he has increased his goals, points, time on ice and shooting percentage. Combine that with the fact that he is a team leader and spokesman and is second only to Chris Kreider when it comes to seniority on the team.

Zibanejad’s biggest issue is staying healthy. Last season he missed 13 games with a neck injury. He missed over 20 games in his first season in New York with a broken leg.  In his next season he missed eight games with a concussion.  His only full season was 2018-19 when he played all 82 games.  Considering his heavy workload, except for the broken leg he has been fairly durable.

The Rangers’ dilemma

If Zibanejad can replicate his 2019-20 stats next season he will be ready to be paid as one of the top centers in the league.  That means a salary in the $10 million range.  Connor McDavid‘s average annual value (AAV) is $12.5 million as the highest paid player in the league.   Of the 13 players in the NHL making an AAV of $10 million or more, six are centers and they include Jack Eichel, Anze Kopitar, Auston Matthews, McDavid, John Tavares and Jonathan Toews.

Let’s just say that Zibanejad had a better season last year than all of them except McDavid.  When looking at a prospective salary, $10 million would be a starting point.

That’s the dilemma for the Rangers.  They have already committed big bucks and long term to Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Chris Kreider.  They are on the hook for about $26 million for those three through the 2025-26 season.  Add in $10 million for ZIbanejad and that’s $36 million committed to four players.  Even if the salary cap increases to $90 million in a few years, that’s still 40% of the payroll committed to four players.

Add in the fact that the Rangers will have young players like Igor Shesterkin, Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox hitting Restricted Free Agency for the first time and it all adds up to a huge cap problem in as soon as two years.

Age is a problem.  Zibanejad will turn 28 in April meaning he will be 29 years old when his new contract takes effect in the 2022-23 season.  He will be looking for long term, probably as many as seven years.   Trouba was only 25 when his seven-year deal kicked in.  Panarin had not turned 28 when last season started.  Kreider has turned 29 with his new contract beginning.  Zibanejad will be older than all of them when his new contract would kick in.

Assuming that the Rangers will be poised to win a Stanley Cup in four years  when their young stars are hitting their prime,  in 2024-25, Panarin,  Kreider and Zibanejad will all be33 while Trouba will be 30.

Is that a problem?   No starter on the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning was older than 31.   The year before there were four players over the age of 30 on the roster of the St. Louis Blues. The championship Capitals of 2017-18 had five players older than 30 including an ancient 37-year old Brooks Orpik.

It’s impossible to predict the career path of players as they grow older.  Superstars tends to age well and not decline precipitously and all of the Rangers are in excellent shape, but it is still a  concern.

The one imperative

If the Rangers want to keep Mika Zibanejad they absolutely have to sign him to an extension after next season.   They can ill afford to find themselves in the situation the Islanders found themselves in with John Tavares in 2018 or the Devils with Taylor Hall last summer.  Contract speculation becomes all consuming and despite the players’ protestations that all they want to do is play hockey, it would be the topic of the day.

How damaging is it?  The Rangers only have to look at the last year and Henrik Lundqvist. Despite all of the civil words, it was a bad situation that had to make its way into the locker room.  The speculation about Kreider wasn’t anywhere near to that of Tavares or Hall, but until he signed his deal, it had to be hanging over the heads of the entire team.  With Zibanejad, it could be worse. That’s one reason why ZIbanejad has not been named team captain.  He’s a natural for the role,but his uncertain future precluded the Rangers from giving him the role.

If the Swede has another spectacular season, the Rangers need to get this done if their intent is to keep him.  Could they get creative, paying him more money for a shorter term?   Could Zibanejad be willing to take less money in order to keep the team intact just as it is ready to win a Stanley Cup?

With a shortage of proven, quality centers on the team and no one in the pipeline who has the potential to be Zibanejad’s heir apparent as the number one center, it’s hard to imagine that the Rangers wouldn’t seek to extend him.

At a bargain AAV of $5.35 million for the next two seasons, he probably won’t be going anywhere, but if early talks are not productive, the unthinkable could happen, that Zibanejad could be potential trade bait at the deadline next season.   The last thing the team would want is for him to become a free agent with no return as Tavares did.   The Devils got a first round pick and three decent prospects from Arizona in exchange for Hall, an okay return.

The Rangers have to hope that a new television contract and a return to normalcy will result in a higher salary cap and given them the room to pay Zibanejad.   It’s still a tough scenario and it isn’t helped by the fact that their second line center, Ryan Strome, will be an unrestricted free agent at the same time as Zibanejad.

So how much is he worth?  And for how long?  Feel free to weigh in.