As the clock passed 9 AM this morning, nothing had happened yet. However, the Rangers and Mika Zibanejad were able to agree during salary arbitration on a new five year contract that’ll pay him an average of $5.35 million per season thru 2022.
For the 24-year old Swede, it means a lot more pressure. With Derek Stepan gone to Arizona, Zibanejad is the new number one center of the Blueshirts. A talented Rangers right pivot who possesses a heavy shot, the former Senator acquired last summer for Derick Brassard knows expectations have increased.
In his first season on Broadway, he posted 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points over 56 contests. A broken fibula cost him 26 games. After struggling in his return mid-January, he was able to perform well in the postseason pacing the Rangers in scoring with nine points (2-7-9). The biggest highlight came in a overtime win over the Canadiens in Game 5 of the first round. A series they would prevail in before falling to his former team Ottawa in the next round.
The best production of a five-year career for Zibanejad came in his final year with Ottawa when he established career bests in goals (21), assists (30) and points (51) over 81 games in ’15-16. If you project the 26 games he missed, it’s not far fetched to think he could’ve reached new heights in all three categories.
What it comes down to is this. The Rangers are gambling that his best years are still ahead. Zibanejad is hitting his mid-20’s which should be the prime. A player who got more responsibility from coach Alain Vigneault including penalty kill duties, he’ll see a hike in ice-time as the top center option. That includes the power play where he’ll have to do better than the four PPG’s he scored. Having a quarterback in Kevin Shattenkirk should help him unleash a wicked one-timer from the left circle.
In regards to the contract, it is a little overpayment. The Rangers decided to buy up three free agent years and commit over $5 million to a young player still needing to prove himself. It’s up to Zibanejad to fulfill expectations. He’s capable of becoming a 25-goal, 40 assist player with a ceiling of 70 points.
It’ll be about consistency. It’s worth noting that prior to the leg injury, he centered the team’s most cohesive line forming superb chemistry with Chris Kreider and rookie Pavel Buchnevich. All three missed time with injuries. Had they not, there’s no telling what they could have done.
The big question for Vigneault is will he keep the trio together. It’s possible he could go with a top line of Kreider, Zibanejad and leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Zuccarello is their best playmaker and can be added to either Kevin Hayes or the third line with J.T. Miller possibly shifting to center. It’s a question of loading up the top two lines or balancing it out.
With Zibanejad done, now GM Jeff Gorton can turn his attention to Marc Staal. There’s another buyout window. Gorton must decide if it’s worth using another buyout on Staal. He’ll probably pass. Buying him out next summer will be easier. Have all the injuries to Staal finished him? He hardly played in Game 6 of their elimination and didn’t speak to reporters on break up day.
Gorton must also decide on Nick Holden, who has a year left before unrestricted status. His cap hit is $1.65 million. So, a team who can use a skating offensive left defenseman could have interest.
In assessing the current roster, they’re a forward short. There’s no way they can have David Desharnais center the third line. At this point, he’s a fourth liner who is best suited for a secondary role. If they don’t acquire a center, then Miller should be the third pivot.
Rookie Lias Andersson and Cristoval Nieves will also get looks in camp. Filip Chytil isn’t expected to make the roster. But he did have two goals today including this one in a exhibition.
The Rangers have approximately three million left on the cap to spend. So, they can always sign one more forward to compete for a spot. A fourth line of Desharnais, Matt Puempel and Jesper Fast isn’t great. Fast is the only one of the three who fits the classic fourth line role with Vigneault preferring to move him around due to Fast’s tenaciousness and versatility.
Unless Andersson or Nieves makes it, there’s room for improvement. We’ll see what Gorton decides. In case you’re bored by no hockey, there is some coming up starting next week. The World Juniors Prospect Camp will air on hockeytv.com and NHL Network. I don’t get why the network isn’t airing more of it. What else is there to show? A 9,000th replay of the Pens repeating?!?!
Never mind. Well, I’ll have some time to check it out. So, I should be able to provide some updates.