Projecting Zibanejad’s Contract Extension

Mika Zibanejad’s two year, $5.25 million contract is expiring this offseason. Zibanejad signed this contract in 2015 with the Ottawa Senators, after his 3 year, $5.325 million entry level contract expired. Unless the New York Rangers re-sign him sooner, Zibanejad will become a restricted free agent on July 1.

Both Zibanejad’s cap hit and average annual value (AAV) were $2.625 million per season in 2015-16 and 2016-17. His actual NHL salary varied in each season of this contract – $2 million last season, $3.25 million this season. Since Zibanejad has already fulfilled a bridge deal, he may be in search of a long-term extension now.

The Rangers must assess their current cap situation and determine how they can retain Zibanejad.

In the regular season, Zibanejad appeared in 56 games. His season was cut short due to a fractured fibula. Nonetheless, he managed to accumulate 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists), with his new team the condensed season. Then in the playoffs, Zibanejad scored 9 points (two goals, seven assists) in 12 games.

Transitioning to a new team is an adjustment, even more so after losing part of the season due to injury. Additionally challenging, was acclimating to new linemates without a particularly consistent combination throughout the season. However, he was still able to shine and exhibit his value to his new team.

Regular Season/Postseason Highlights:

o   Fourth highest CF60 (55.2) and SF60 (30.27) on team, behind only Stepan, Zuccarello, and Kreider.

o   Third highest xGF60 (2.71, after Kreider and Nash) and GF60 (2.88, following Grabner and Buchnevich).

o   Fifth lowest SCA60 of 7.57 (behind Stepan, Zuccarello, Buchnevich, and Kreider).

o   34 takeaways (which ranked eight on the team, however it must be noted that he played fewer games than all higher ranked teammates)

o   Regular season P60 of 1.81, 2.3 in the postseason.

o   Second highest SCF60 on team in playoffs (12.28, trailing only Buchnevich).

o   GWG in OT of Game 5 vs. Canadiens

After a successful first regular season and postseason with the Rangers, General Manager Jeff Gorton should look to extend Zibanejad and make him a core piece of this team.

Zibanejad has filled the void left by Derick Brassard – the player he was traded in exchange for last offseason. During the 2014 offseason, Brassard signed a five year, $5 million AAV contract extension with the Rangers. Brassard was 26-years old at the time of the signing and 28-years old when traded for 23-year old Zibanejad. They were able to acquire a player that will not just succeed “right now,” but moving forward since he has yet to reach his prime.

The Rangers already had a first line center at Derek Stepan, 26, who has a steeper cap hit of $6.5 million a season when they made this trade – with Brassard on the team, the Rangers’ top two centers were often considered 1A and 1B, rather than a clear number one and two.

For a team that is consistently tight on cap space, moving Brassard’s $5 million cap hit for Zibanejad’s $2.625 million hit gave the Rangers more flexibility. Although their cap situation will be slightly different this season, it seems unlikely that the Rangers can afford a contract that is much more expensive than Brassard’s was – especially since they already have a first line center in Stepan.

As it stands, Zibanejad is the Rangers’ second line center behind Stepan – who has four years remaining on his six year, $6.5 million AAV contract. For the next two seasons, the contract includes a no trade clause that becomes a modified no trade clause for the final two seasons. With Stepan signed long-term as the Rangers’ number one center, Zibanejad’s contract will likely be lower to reflect his role as the team’s second line center.

Structurally, Zibanejad’s next contract could be similar to Stepan’s contract – Stepan extended with the Rangers when he was 24 years old after his two year, $3.075 million AAV bridge deal expired (which included a $2.3 million NHL salary in the first year, $3.85 in the second year). His current contract is frontloaded (starting with an $8 million NHL salary and ending with a $5 million NHL salary) – which could serve as a model for Zibanejad’s extension.

As always, the Rangers are crunched for cap space. They will be relieved of at least one contract after the expansion draft, will likely lose Pirri’s $1.1 million cap hit in free agency, and will be free of Glass’s $1.45 million cap hit (although, they may re-sign Glass exposure eligibility purposes, but it would probably for a lower cap hit). The Rangers may free cap space by making change on defense as well.

Because of their financial restraints, the Rangers cannot sign Zibanejad to an exorbitant contract. It would be advantageous to the Rangers to sign Zibanejad to a long-term contract, as opposed to another bridge deal that would only cost them more in the future.

If Zibanejad re-signs, he will continue to be featured in the Rangers’ top six. Other top six forwards with contracts that may resemble Zibanejad’s next contract are Zuccarello (four years, $4.5 million AAV), Kreider (four years, $4.625 million AAV), and Stepan (six years, $6.5 million AAV).

Based factors including his career achievements, position, age, and status as a pending free agent, Cap Friendly’s Comparable tool generated comparable contracts. A five year, $5 million AAV contract was used for comparison here. Below are active contracts that would be at least an 80 percent match to a five year, $5 million AAV contract signed by a player of Zibanejad’s capabilities.

Below is a chart featuring the points per 60 of Zibanejad and those with comparable contracts to that potential five year, $5 million extension, to give some insights on how Zibanejad measures against those players.

Ideally, the Rangers sign Zibanejad to a contract resembling that of Nazem Kadri or Tyler Ennis – as they would help the Rangers balance their cap space while retaining Zibanejad long-term.

Along with re-signing Zibanejad, the Rangers also have to consider pending restricted free agents Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast, as well as pending unrestricted free agent Brendan Smith. At the conclusion of next season, the Rangers will have even more contracts expiring (including Miller, Hayes, Vesey, and Skjei) that will require substantial cap space.

By determining whether they intend on enveloping Zibanejad into their core prior to the start of free agency – when the contracts signed by other free agents can create trends and set higher market prices – the Rangers could create a more favorable contract for their cap situation. Centers who are pending free agents this offseason include Ryan Johansen, Tyler Johnson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Mikael Granlund, and Alex Galchenyuk – all of whom could potentially drive up contract values.

The expansion draft only increases pressure on the Rangers’ contract extensions, as they are limited in the number of players they can protect. Although his first season with the Rangers was shortened, Zibanejad demonstrated his value in this lineup in both the regular season and playoffs, and showed glimpses of his potential – which is why establishing whether Zibanejad will be a key piece to the future of this team must be a priority.

*All data is at 5v5 via, salary cap data is from CapFriendly.