Rangers facing tough decision with Mika Zibanejad’s future

With Mika Zibanejad looking like the Mika Zibanejad of old, the Rangers are now facing an increasingly difficult decision on his future with the club. Zibanejad’s current contract pays him $5.35 million a season, and that ends after next season. At that point, Zibanejad will be 29 years old and an unrestricted free agent. It is expect he will command a big time raise.

When this conversation was last visited, Zibanejad was in the middle of a COVID related major slump. Yet even with that slump, Zibanejad now has 7 goals and 20 points in 31 games. That’s still a 53 point pace, which isn’t great but, given the situation, is a pretty good recovery. It’s easy to assume that Zibanejad will get a long-term deal in excess of $7 million when this one expires. Depending on how next season goes, it could get much more expensive.

The Rangers only have two options. They can re-sign him, or they can trade him. They cannot –and will not– let him walk.

The case for re-signing him

There is a strong case for re-signing Zibanejad. He’s easily the Rangers’ best center. He’s a legitimate 1C in the league, and is an absolutely lethal shot. He drives offense, commands attention on the ice, and plays in all situations. He’s a leader on the team, and clearly someone the team needs to succeed.

The risk with re-signing him is dealing with a fourth long term deal. Three (Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider) of four will bring players well into their thirties. Only Jacob Trouba’s ends in his early thirties at 32. That quartet would tie up at least $34 million in cap space, possibly more. Every important Ranger on the roster would be due a significant raise before any of these contracts are up, possibly multiple raises. With a flat cap, that may become near impossible within 3-4 years.

Given the lack of center depth on the NHL roster and in the system, the case for keeping him is strong.

The case for trading him

The old saying is, “it is better to trade a player a year too early, rather than a year too late.” My dislike for Bill Belicheck is well known, but he is 100% correct here. The Rangers have a major risk in re-signing Zibanejad as he gets to the wrong side of 30 years old. There is no guarantee he declines, but they are already taking that risk with Panarin and Kreider. Is tripling down a smart option?

The best comparison here is the player the Rangers traded to land Zibanejad, and that is Derick Brassard. When the Rangers traded him, they were trading an established center who had just put up a pair of 60-point seasons as a top-two center. The Rangers lucked into their trade with the Senators, but also took a risk that Zibanejad wouldn’t put up consistent points the way Brassard was. The risk was smaller, but it worked out.

Can the Rangers find another trade partner involving Zibanejad? It is certainly possible. Ottawa isn’t the go-to answer here anymore, and Buffalo seems to be the default lately with Jack Eichel’s situation. But it is more likely the Rangers go outside the box. The flat cap and lower revenues this season may hamstring an owner into taking less real dollars in a trade.

But don’t take this the wrong way. The Rangers won’t trade him if they can’t find someone younger with potential.

Regardless of what happens, there are going to be cases for and against both. It’s an extremely difficult situation for the Rangers, and an unenviable one for Jeff Gorton. Mika Zibanejad’s future with the Rangers is unknown, and we may actually get an answer this summer.