Mika Zibanejad Contract: Jeff Gorton Gets It Right

Akin to the Kevin Shattenkrik confusion before he signed with the New York Rangers, Jeff Gorton was silent as things seemed to be spiraling out of his control when it came to Mika Zibanejad and his contract negotiations.

Information is murky as to how far along the arbitration process the two sides went, but in the end the Rangers and Zibanejad agreed to a five-year deal (and Tom was damn close in his analysis on the subject here).

This is an enormous win for the Rangers, who utilized an injury that hampered Zibanejad’s total production to lock him into a deal that should pay for itself before next summer. The fact that Zibanejad was not given a “show me” contract proves that Gorton is smart enough to know that you’d rather pay a player for what he’s going to do rather than what he has done.

Since the Rangers didn’t go down this road with J.T. Miller originally, Gorton is going to have something to clean up next summer. Even if Miller plateaus at the 60ish point range, the contract extension he’s going to get will have teeth on it that the Rangers could have avoided if Glen Sather would have been smart enough to bet on his talent, rather than forcing a bridge deal to somehow keep together an overpaid defense that was one of the worst in the league. Regardless, those days seem long past.

Zibanejad isn’t just one of the most important young cogs in the machine because he was swapped for Derick Brassard, either. Zibanejad has a lethal skill set, and still put up career PPG metrics despite missing a chunk of time due to injury and needing to get his legs back once he returned. In the playoffs he was clearly one of the Rangers best forwards, and looked outstanding when he was permitted to play with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. He had the fifth highest CF% rel on the team (omitting Adam Clendening, Nicklas Jensen, and Marek Hrivik who all played in too few games and skewed the metric) and was 4th on the team in PPG.

In the playoffs no other regular skater had more PPG than Zibanejad (who at 0.75 was nearly two tenths of a point higher than the 0.58 Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh sported behind him). He also did that with a 5.9 SH% (which is well below the 11% he’s recorded in his career). Oh, he also led the team in points in the playoffs.

Again, why are people talking about Brassard? Again, why are people complaining about his contract?

Zibanejad got paid what you pay a top-six center. If anything, he probably got less money when all is said and done, but let’s avoid that for now. The wonderful Shayna (follow her here if you’re not) put together a comparable list of all the league’s top six centers (this was put together before free agency, so forgive some of the oddities like Derek Stepan being on the Rangers).

Before you go crazy: There are clearly elite players on this list. I am not comparing Zibanejad to the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and the like. This is simply to show you that centers who fall in the “top six” category make good money. There are plenty of players on this list not on entry level deals that are making wildly more money than Zibanejad (or even similar money) and don’t deserve it. Zibanejad’s new contract is right in this wheelhouse, and if he turns into a 65+ player (and there’s not much to say he can’t) then the contract will be something we’re all smiling about ear to ear.

Here’s another view from Shayna that might help. (Here’s her note on this: For this graph I didn't include teams who didn't deploy 2 consistent centers all year (ARI, NSH for example) & ones with a 1st or 2nd line center on an ELC. For SJS it’s Pavelski+Couture on graph because Thorton was used more often on Pavelski’s wing).

This graph was also made before Zibanejad signed (so the Rangers’ green is represented by Stepan), but it’s another good way to see just how much teams are paying/have paid for their top-six centers. For Zibanejad to be at $5.35 million is right about where you expect a top guy to come in.

As a note here: I’m intentionally not arguing the merits of a top-six center. Statistically, a guy who puts up 50 points a year is a number one center. Not all teams have elite centers, and comparing a first line center to expectations heaped on a guy like Crosby are insane. Stepan was a number one center – even if his point totals didn’t compare to Crosby’s, as he specialized in a two-way game like a number of other 1Cs (Koptiar, Bergeron). If Zibanejad hits 55 points next year, he will be as well. Last year the top center was Conor McDavid (obviously) with 100 points, but Stepan’s 55 points were good for 30th among centers. That’s a top line center, like it or not. If you expect 70+ you’re talking about elite centers and there’s a big difference there.

In this world of insanity (where the Rangers seem concerned about financial flexibility), betting on young talent is key to eliminating those backbreaking deals that you have to shell out to protect players who would otherwise cost an arm and a leg.

Simply put: This is a good bet by Gorton, and it should pay out for the Rangers in the long run.