Why Zibanejad Absolutely Must Sign Long-Term

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

During an interview following the NHL Entry Draft, New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton was asked about Mika Zibanejad, and what status updates he could provide regarding whether contract talks had begun on extending the 24-year old Restricted Free Agent (RFA). His answer was vague, but also scarily “wide open”.

“We’re open to anything as far as Mika. We want to make a good deal.” Gorton said (via the Daily News).

“It could be short-term, it could be long-term. We’re wide open.”

That may seem like pragmatism at work from a sensible GM, but recent history, specifically with respect to a center who the Rangers just shipped to Arizona, says otherwise. For anyone who followed the process closely, alarms should be ringing left and right warning of the strikingly similar parallels that are drawn between the events. As Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

It wasn’t long ago that the Rangers opted to offer Derek Stepan, at the age of 23, coming into his second NHL contract, a two-year bridge deal with a $3.075M Annual Average Value (AAV) instead of a mirror contract to the one now team captain Ryan McDonagh signed, at the age of 24, with a $4.7M AAV over six years. Yes, at the time the Rangers couldn’t have afforded to do so without cutting something of significance from their roster to make room enough to fit matching long-term deals for the Wisconsin Alumni, but the path that that decision forced Stepan down was ultimately responsible for his predictable departure from the Blueshirts. All because of the Rangers’ lack of long-term thinking. The cost of doing business the way they did is now paid out in full having to watch Stepan live out the second half of the six-year deal he eventually signed—instead, at the age of 25—with the Coyotes.

Fast-forward to today and the Blueshirts are broaching a comparable contract scenario with 24-year old Mika Zibanejad—one the Rangers would be wise to heed to history on so as not to make the same mistake twice.

Believe in Mika

The productive Swede is inarguably one of the most important players to the Rangers immediate future, and as the roster is currently constructed, will begin the 2017-18 NHL season as the Rangers de facto first-line center. Thankfully, it’s a role he was drafted to eventually take on by design, and his steadily increasing production provides the historical record to justify his finally being given the opportunity to prove he can handle the task.

A quick look at his boxcar stats over the last season paint a strong, progressive outlook for his immediate future as the Rangers’ top-line center:

With his points per game played (P/GP) pace gradually improving year-over-year, combined with being arbitration eligible and having only two years of RFA status left, is there really a choice in the matter to lock him in long-term? Despite the injury-derailed season he had this past year, he’s proven his value as a player worth investing in.

Signing Zibanejad to another bridge contract—a term commonly used to describe short-term deals for young players—would be bad business for the Rangers, who should have learned a valuable lesson in why those deals are of diminishing value in today’s NHL. Not only because they assuredly increase the cost of future contracts (especially those that purchase Unrestricted Free Agent [UFA]-eligible years), but specifically in Zibanejad’s case, because he already signed a bridge deal with the Senators coming out of his Entry-Level Contract (ELC) back in 2015. Asking him to sign another only accomplishes in kicking the can down the road and promises to make the Rangers pay for it financially when they finally show a willingness to go long-term, this time at the age of 25 or 26 where they’d need to buy even more UFA-eligible years as a result. A year or two of a relatively cost-controlled AAV just isn’t worth the long-term implications that signing Zibanejad to that kind of contract would ultimately cost the Blueshirts. It’s not just the year-to-year savings, either. It’s the life of the contract and the age in which the player will be upon its expiration.

This is as sure a reality as there can be, and it’s one the Rangers (hopefully) were taught not to relive with Derek Stepan, whom this very thing occurred with for many of the same reasons.

Making Cents of the Dollars

Gauging what a long-term contract might look like for Zibanejad isn’t terribly difficult. A quick look at some similar contracts signed by comparable players at or around the same age help to shine a light on what his AAV should look like. That list includes Bryan Little, Tyler Ennis, Brayden Schenn, Nazem Kadri, Jaden Schwartz, and of course, Derek Stepan—all of whom signed their extensions at effectively the same career point at the age of 24 or 25.

All six players compare favorably in terms of P/GP average over the last three seasons prior to their signing their extensions. If we take the average of their combined cost, we arrive at $5.129M—a very healthy estimate for where Zibanejad’s AAV should land, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars.

As to term, they have no real reason to go with fewer than five, or greater than six. This range would take Zibanejad from the age of 24 to either the age of 29 or 30 while buying all of his prime years in which he projects to be his most productive as an NHL forward. It would also leave enough runway later in his career to earn him a second kick at UFA where he could theoretically sign a fourth and final contract to ride into retirement on.

Regardless of whether the Rangers go with a five- or six-year deal, however, they simply must opt for a long-term solution. Anything less would assuredly not be worth the headache of re-living the nightmare that the Derek Stepan negotiations became, especially given how easy of a decision this should be with a quick glance at the Rangers available cap space. With Kevin Klein’s retirement announcement on Friday, the Rangers now have a little more than $8.4M with which to re-sign Zibanejad and potentially add an additional forward in order to field a complete team for training camp and preseason this September. In no world is this a difficult decision to make, so it’s incumbent upon Jeff Gorton not to make it one.

All contract and salary information courtesy of CapFriendly.com

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