Now that he has overhauled his defense by adding Kevin Shattenkirk and Anthony DeAngelo, and re-signed Brendan Smith, the next big order of business for New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton will be coming to terms on a new contract with restricted free agent center Mika Zibanejad so they can avoid arbitration.
He is the only restricted free agent on the roster and will probably the last major move the team has to make this summer.
With more than $8 million in salary cap space and 20 players under contract for 2017-18, the Rangers will have no trouble fitting Zibanejad under the cap. But there is still a matter of how much of that space he is going to take up both this season and in the future. A couple of recent signings around the NHL might give us a window as to what we should expect, at least as far as dollar amounts are concerned.
The Tampa Bay Lightning just re-signed restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to long-term deals for $5 million and $5.3 million a year, respectively. Though Zibanejad is two years younger, their careers to this point are at least somewhat similar.
Zibanejad is obviously a little step below them in terms of overall production, but it’s not a massive difference. Given that Zibanejad is coming off of a contract that just paid him more than $2.3 million per season, the Rangers should probably expect to pay somewhere between $4.3 and $4.9 million.
But for how many years? Larry Brooks at the New York Post speculated this weekend that while the Rangers would prefer to sign him to a multi-year contract, Zibanejad might prefer a shorter-term deal to maximize his value in two years, when he could become an unrestricted free agent and potentially cash in on the open market. At that point he could be a really good center in his prime, available to the highest bidder. That type of player does not typically hit the open market anymore.
The problem with a shorter term deal for the Rangers is that Zibanejad has significant importance to them given the rest of their moves this offseason.
With Derek Stepan’s trade to the Arizona Coyotes for the No. 7 overall pick and DeAngelo, and Oscar Lindberg heading to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, New York’s center depth has taken a pretty substantial hit this summer. The Rangers signed David Desharnais in free agency but he is not going to be a long-term, high-impact player. That means that for the time being Zibanejad is the team’s No. 1 center, and looks to be for the future. At least, as long as he remains on the roster. That puts the team in a position where it could potentially lose another top-six center in two years without having another one to replace him.
Going with a short-term deal not only presents that risk, but also creates the real possibility that Zibanejad increases his value with a big season in 2017-18.
Not only did the Rangers upgrade their defense with more of a puck-moving presence that should be a boost to their forwards, Zibanejad has improved his overall production (on a per-game basis) in each of the past four seasons. He is also now entering the phase of his career (his age 24 season) where most players peak offensively.
Even if Zibanejad tops out at 0.65 to 0.70 points per game for the next few years, the Rangers are not going to find much better on the open market, and acquiring that type of player in a trade would require a significant cost.
Based on his track record, a long-term contract would be a relatively low-risk move for the Rangers. Zibanejad is an established player that has improved every season and might still have his best days in front of him.
Given his importance to the Rangers and how they really cannot afford to risk losing another top-six center in the coming seasons, a long-term deal would be a worthwhile investment, even if it means giving him a little extra cash to convince him to take it.
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