Light At The End Of The Tunnel For Mika Zibanejad And Jeff Gorton

Like clockwork, players who file for arbitration go through what I like to call the “Three Stages of Fan Insanity.”

Stage 1: Anger at the player for having the gall to utilize what little negotiating leverage an RFA has by filing for arbitration.

Stage 2: Yelling about how the player is “greedy” when their ask is officially reported or leaked because it’s usually steep. There could be a sub-stage of “negotiating 101 is ask for more than you want” but people seem to forget this ever year.

Stage 3: Claim “I knew it would get done” or “wow, that wasn’t that bad” once it’s all said and done. Think to yourself to remember this for next time. Promptly forget it.

Mika Zibanejad has gone through this just like any other RFA on the New York Rangers. From the moment he filed for arbitration to this writing, he’s seen it all.

“Reports” (and I use the phrase in this instance so, so lightly) surfaced that Zibanejad was asking for near $6-million a year – which, if we’re being honest, would not be an insane place to begin his negotiations (especially with the comparable contracts Tom dug up). These “reports” then turned into outright suggestions that perhaps Zibanejad didn’t fire Newport Sports as his agency of record, but rather they fired him for his demands being too high. Forget how insane that would be (we did cover it a little on the most recent podcast here), it just proves how crazy these comments get when people hear (or even think they hear) something they don’t like.

Now we know the truth, and it’s actually somewhat startling: Zibanejad’s ask is pretty pedestrian, at just $5.3-million. The Rangers, as usual, lowballed the hell out of their arbitration ask (again, this is normal) at $4.1 million. My initial reaction? Hard to see them not getting this done out of court.

There is one hurdle, however, if it exists in the first place.

It appears as though some actual rumors are hanging around that Zibanejad wants to keep the contract as short as possible. If Zibanejad signs a two-year deal, he will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the deal – which is probably his goal. The Rangers can play hardball there too, by going to arbitration Wednesday for a one-year settlement that would again expire as an RFA, leaving them to dance this dance again next summer.

Zibanejad is coming off what would have been a career year without the injury to derail him, and is clearly the Rangers top center. Mike mentioned this on the podcast as well, but Zibanejad knows this, and more importantly, he knows the Rangers know this. He can play a little hardball here as well, especially if he wants a shorter deal now for a bigger payday down the line.

If this is not a sticking point though, the Rangers need to avoid a bridge deal at all costs. Like I said last week:

If the Rangers are truly wary about their future financial opportunities, they need to start by taking calculated risks with key free agents. Zibanejad is a critical part of the Rangers’ future (here’s his report card for what it’s worth) and his ceiling is as high as you’d like to see from a 24-year-old. He’s also in a prime place for the team to “bridge” him, which means signing him to a two-year deal for less money with the promise of more money down the line.

This is a tactic the Rangers utilized for all RFAs under Sather – as Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi, Artem Anisimov, Henrik Lundqvist (via arbitration), Chris Kreider, Michael Del Zotto, and Mats Zuccarello are all names of players who have received this treatment. Most recently, Oscar Lindberg, Fast, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller have seen much of the same. In some instances, the precedent works, while it creates a ticking time bomb for others.

Miller and Hayes are perfect examples of players who would have saved the Rangers money down the line had the team taken a longer approach with them after their ELCs expired. Miller specifically is going to cost the Rangers at least a couple of million dollars more than he probably could have been tagged for last year (more on that here). Notably, only Ryan McDonagh avoided the forced bridge deal, and that has turned out to be the Rangers best contract.

It appears as though term seems to be the gap between Zibanejad and the Rangers, unless Gorton is truly trying to force that value into the lower 4’s rather than meeting on the higher end of the spectrum (which he should be doing). The term aspect of these negotiations are, for what it’s worth, murky at best. It’s speculation and rumor more than anything else. We’ll get that answer as soon as the deal gets inked.

What we do know, at least based on the the asks, is that the two sides aren’t far enough apart – or in a far enough realm to turn this into a bigger deal than it is. Unless the Rangers drag this to arbitration intentionally, I can’t see this lasting to Wednesday.