Of the New York Rangers who need a new contract, whether they be a free agent or someone entering the final year of their contract, Pavel Buchnevich should be at the top of the list for President and General Manager Chris Drury.
Truthfully he’s No. 1 or No. 2 depending on how realistic you feel it is that Adam Fox will sign a long-term extension based off two seasons when it may be advantageous for him to push for a short deal and then cash in. A new deal for Igor Shesterkin shouldn’t be hard either, as the team can draw on history. Henrik Lundqvist had a two-year ELC, signed a one-year deal at $4.25 million (8.45% of the cap), and then ultimately signed a six-year deal upon expiry. That seems like a fair template to use. Outside of that, Buchnevich is the main priority. And yes, signing Buchnevich to a new deal is more important than signing Mika Zibanejad to an extension.
Buchnevich has developed into a very important player for the Rangers, and his impact goes beyond personal accolades. “Captain Happy” has also played a decent role in elevating Zibanejad’s play even though some feel it is the other way around given Buchnevich’s recent success. This is not to say both don’t help each other, but the results when each have been apart shine some light on who’s pulling more weight. Before we get into Zibanejad though, let’s look at what Buchnevich did on his last contract, and why locking him up is very important.
Buchnevich’s two-year deal that paid him $3.25 million a season is up, and his performance on that contract should enable him to get a nice deal this summer, or one on the open market next summer if he reaches free agency.
Evolving-Hockey has a tool which generates player cards that will show were a player ranks in a given year in terms of player percentiles. It also has bar charts for categories like even strength offense and defense, special teams play, and penalty differential that compare actual versus expected performance. Finally, there’s a summary for time on ice by situation. When looking at these charts you will see that because 2019-20 and 2020-21 were less than 82 games, the numbers have been prorated up.
These two seasons side-by-side are very impressive, and just for laughs, here’s what it looks like if you include the last three years.
As you can see, over the last two or three years, the Rangers have had a top end forward with some respectable all-around numbers. It’s been a steady progression and his raw numbers highlight that too. His actual results are in line with what was expected of him, so it isn’t a situation where he was playing above his means to the point where you’d be worried about regression.
Buchnevich tallied 36 goals and 58 assists for 94 points in 122 games played during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. That’s good enough for the fourth-most points in that stretch with only Ryan Strome (108), Zibanejad (125), and Artemiy Panarin (153) ahead of him. Of his 94 points, 67 came at even strength, and 50 of the 67 were primary. In this time frame he’s tied with Zibanejad for second-most even strength points with both trailing Panarin’s 96.
Raw points are just one way of looking at things, and it is also important to look at underlying numbers and above replacement metrics. One of those metrics is Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement which factors include offense, defense, penalty differential, and production on special teams.
The Rangers’ 2013 third rounder also ranks third in GAR (21.6) among skaters over the last two seasons, and trails only Adam Fox (24.5) and Artemiy Panarin (31.6) during that span. During that stretch he also ranked 25th in the league among forwards in GAR, ahead of names such as Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Scheifele, Andrei Svechnikov, and Mathew Barzal just to name a few.
Goals above replacement is a compilation stat which means it helps when you appear in a lot of games, but if you filter it to GAR/60 he still comes in third at .60 per 60 trailing Colin Blackwell (0.699) and Panarin (0.844). GAR can also be boosted by power play production, but in the case of Buchnevich he’s excelled despite getting significant time on the man advantage.
During this period, Buchnevich tallied 17 power play points and ranked sixth in total power play time at just under 265 minutes. If you just look at this year which was a career year offensively, Buchnevich tallied eight power play points and logged just over 113 minutes. In both stretches the forwards getting playing time ahead of him include Panarin, Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Ryan Strome on forward. On defense that shifts to Adam Fox, and Tony DeAngelo who logged almost 221 minutes in just 73 games played the last few years.
So with that said, how much is Buchnevich worth?
According to Evolving-Hockey’s model, Buchnevich’s most likely deal (34%) is a five-year contract at $6,335,000 which is fair when you consider what Chris Kreider got not too long ago. You could make a strong case that he deserves more than that, but I feel it’s an accurate number.
Other options include:
- 1 year — $5.168 million (3%)
- 2 years — $5.282 million (6%)
- 3 years — $6 million (6%)
- 4 years — $6.305 million (23%)
- 6 years — $6.812 million (12%)
- 7 years — $6.849 million (3%)
- 8 years — $7.723 million (14%)
Of the options, five to six years feels right, although I could see a four year situation if the team bumped up the AAV a bit to maintain long term flexibility. Buchnevich isn’t a player I could see getting a NMC, but I imagine he’d wanted a limited no-trade where he can block a trade to a select number of teams, or name teams where he’d be willing to go. He deserves every bit of the projection, but him taking a little less is possible in the context of him seeing and wanting to remain part of what the Rangers are building.
Then there’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score Value Added model which projects a player’s expected value and assigns a yearly market rate. You can read more about GSVA here.
Using Evolving-Hockey’s projection, Dom’s model highlights that would be a positive deal for the Rangers in which they’d get surplus value for their investment.
Buchnevich’s proficiency at evens has been a primary driver of value, and it is fair to wonder what things would look like if he’d been used in a primary role on the power play. What is important to note here is that Buchnevich projects to be a top line winger for the next two seasons, and I’d argue that he could provide value for a third or fourth year when you consider the strides he’s made in recent years.
Earlier this year I wrote a story on Buchnevich using a projection from Dom’s model based on his play at the time, and he’s increased his stock since then.
Going back to Dom’s most recent projection, if you limit Buchnevich’s status as a top line player to just two years, that would effectively give Kaapo Kakko two more years of growth and development before being in a position to assume that role, leaving three years left on the deal in which Buchnevich serves as the second line wing which would be perfectly fine.
Earlier I mentioned Buchnevich’s status is more important that Mika Zibanejad, so let’s finally get down to business. A lot was made of Zibanejad’s down start to the season, and at the time it was thought to be COVID-19 related. This was confirmed after the season, and Zibanejad didn’t want to use his illness as a crutch or an excuse.
“It was hard, it wasn’t easy and everyone reacts to it differently. I wasn’t feeling very good. I told you guys I was fine, but it was just for my sake I didn’t want to create anything around that or put that in my own head really.”
Zibanejad’s situation was rough and one you don’t want to use in a big way as a determining factor on his future. But if you look back 2019-20 and consider 2020-21 with the context of COVID, it is still fair to have concerns about giving Zibanejad a mega deal for six-plus years. Larry Brooks has reported that the Rangers could look to keep the deal at five years, and the cap hit would start at around $8 million. On the surface that isn’t a terrible contract, but it is still a sizable one.
We looked at Buchnevich’s last two years, and now here’s player cards for Zibanejad.
And then there’s the three year look.
And one more look, this time Buchnevich and Zibanejad’s last three years at 5v5 side by side.
Over the last two years Zibanejad ranked seventh on the Rangers in GAR (12.9), and he’d be a lot higher if there weren’t so many negatives dragging him down. The first is Zibanejad’s -6.9 defensive GAR, which is certainly not nice. It’s comprised of a -4.2 in even strength defense, and a -2.7 in shorthanded defense.
Again, I recognize that COVID certainly is going to play a role, so let’s look at his 2019-20 campaign closer.
The above chart shows results in bar form, and the below has each category individually with the expected results on the top, the actual in the middle, and the variance between the two at the bottom.
Last season Zibanejad finished sixth in GAR (8.5), and once again it would have been higher if not for his defensive numbers dragging him down. He finished in the 94th percentile among players, but that 2 for defense is alarming. He had a -5.3 in defensive GAR which includes a -2.9 at even strength, and a -2.3 shorthanded.
That season Zibanejad only played in 57 games where some skaters played 70, but if you sort by GAR per 60, he comes in eighth among Rangers skaters with a 0.414 GAR per 60.
The gap in Zibanejad’s actual results vs. expected highlights some situations were he’s “underperformed” despite seemingly stellar stat sheet results. With that said, it’s obviously very good that he’s able to score goals the way he does. What he does when he isn’t scoring goals comes into more focus when you consider the next contract he could get, and how it might age.
This is not to say that he can’t be productive, or shouldn’t be kept around, but making room for him financially shouldn’t be at the expense of other players. Zibanejad projects to be productive for the Rangers, but his next contract essentially would be paying a premium for diminishing returns when you consider the value they’ve gotten from him on a deal worth $5.35 million a season.
Just like we did with Buchnevich, here’s a look at Zibanejad using Dom’s GSVA model.
This hypothetical places his market value at $9.1 million which is something that may be tough for the team to swallow. Zibanejad could likely get close to that on the free agent market, but that high of an AAV would only work on a short deal for the Rangers. But the problem is he is going to want security, and he’s not wrong to seek that.
Wondering how much Zibanejad has left at an elite level offensively is a fair question, and if there’s a deal that can work for both sides given the context of what the team is trying to accomplish. There’s not a crunch right now, but when you are trying to improve and add elite players there’s only so much cap space to go around, and it is entirely feasible the Rangers could think twice about signing Buchnevich to a long-term deal with Zibanejad still needing a contract.
If that’s the case, it would be a bad plan. The reason why this is bad is because Zibanejad’s not been very effective at 5v5 away from Pavel Buchnevich the last two seasons.
This is something that’s we saw in 2019-20, and continued into 2020-21. For example, in 2019-20 the duo had an xGF% of 50.23 in 481:42 together. When Buchnevich spent 462 minutes away, his xGF% was 53.26. In the 314:39 Zibanejad played without Buchnevich, his xGF% was 39.34. This 314:39 represented 25% of Zibanejad’s total ice time, which is a fair sample to draw on. Sometimes, not having Buchnevich on his wing meant playing with someone lesser, but that significant of a drop still sparks some questions.
Buchnevich was his most frequent partner, after that was Chris Kreider at 450 minutes (often times overlapping with Buchnevich), then Panarin at 234 minutes, Kakko at 115 minutes, and Jesper Fast at 108 minutes.
This season the duo had a 46.53 xGF% together. When Buchnevich was away from Zibanejad he had an xGF% of 59.52, whereas Zibanejad away from Buchnevich had an xGF% of 40.6. If you look at CF% in both stint you’ll also see where Zibanejad was a drain, and how Buchnevich was that much better away from him.
Here’s some charts from Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz with arrows added to make the point that much clearer.
There are some limitations to WOWYs, and you could say the sample size isn’t large enough, but when you look at each player’s individual impacts it becomes clear why Buchnevich has been fine and Zibanejad has struggled, COVID aside. There’s a lot of weird things that happen during a season, but when you look at all the available data it is becoming clear that Zibanejad isn’t driving a lot of his own offense, and becomes a better player when he’s with Buchnevich.
Lastly, it is important to look at career isolated impact at 5v5 and how each player has progressed.
There’s certainly something to examine regarding Zibanejad’s analytical regression the last two years, and it comes at a time in which Buchnevich has really broken out.
If the Rangers are going to extend Zibanejad, they should be sure they can keep Buchnevich too. Both together can work, Buchnevich alone can work, but Zibanejad alone could be dicey long term depending on who he skates alongside. And to that point, if you are signing someone for as big a potential deal as Zibanejad, they should be able to thrive with anyone.
There’s also a world where the team could pay Buchnevich first, and then make their main move this summer bringing in someone at center who’s an upgrade on Zibanejad and Ryan Strome. That could lead to Strome or Zibanejad moving out, and Filip Chytil being given more of a chance too. There is a proof of concept, albeit a small sample, with Buchnevich and Chytil, and long term that’s an option worth considering if there isn’t a trade to be made for a top flight center.
In short, it is very important for the Rangers to lock up one of the better first line right wingers in the entire NHL. He’s coming off a career year offensively, with limited power play time, and was a significant contributor on the penalty kill. His defensive game has grown leaps and bounds, and it is fair to say he’s become one of the team’s most dependable two-way players. He’s done all that the Rangers have asked of him, and more.
The Rangers have some depth on right wing, but there’s no telling if someone like Vitali Kravtsov will be used in a trade this summer. Kaapo Kakko took a big step forward in his second season in the NHL, but he’s still a developing prospect.
To maintain flexibility, in case Kakko does eclipse him in the near future, it’s essential that the Rangers don’t limit themselves with too many movement clauses. That allows the team to continue with their winger depth, but doesn’t lock them out of making necessary changes down the line if any issues develop.
Buchnevich projects to be a very productive player for the next few seasons, and when he starts his decline Kakko should be ready to take off as a bona fide top line player. As it stands, the Rangers do not have someone internally that can replace Buchnevich and what he brings to the table.
And there aren’t many external candidates within reason, and that includes someone like free agent Zach Hyman who’d be a downgrade. The concept of trading for Matthew Tkachuk is intriguing, but logistically that may be hard to work out.
The Rangers ultimately have aspirations of winning a Stanley Cup, and players like Buchnevich can help them achieve that goal. The organization will certainly evaluate areas that can be improved, and look for players that can be brought in to bolster the roster, but it is just as important to lock up Buchnevich.