By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers aren't going to have any trouble fitting Mika Zibanejad's new deal under the salary cap, but it's going to take a little extra yearly coin to get him to commit to a long-term contract.
Zibanejad has increased his points per game in each of the past three seasons, rising to 0.66 in 2016-17. It's probably in Zibanejad's best interest to push for a short-term deal that would allow him to seek a lucrative, long-term payday at the peak of his earning power.
The 24-year-old center's numbers took a significant leap during his first postseason with the Rangers. Zibanejad averaged 0.75 points per game, with his seven assists and nine points leading the team.
The Tampa Bay Lightning tied down Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to long-term deals last week, so the comparables are in place for Zibanejad and his agent, half-brother Monir Kalgoum, to shoot for. Johnson signed a seven-year, $35 million contract ($5 million annual-average value), while Palat agreed to a five-year, 26.5 million pact ($5.3 million AAV).
Zibanejad will be two years younger than Palat and three years younger than Johnson on opening night. It's no secret that Zibanejad has the potential to be a star in this league. The Swede possesses excellent two-way instincts, a powerful shot and high-IQ playmaking acumen.
Last season could have been a monster for him if not for mid-November broken fibula that interrupted a fine start to his Blueshirts career. Zibanejad recorded 15 points through 19 games during the first two months of the season. That said, 2016-17 was a learning experience for Zibanejad in many ways. Judging by his May 11 breakup day statements, there are still mental aspects of the game that he hasn't fully grasped.
"If you look at the games I don't play well, I'm not skating enough," Zibanejad said. "I'm kind of waiting for something to happen, instead of making something happen. I know I have the ability to do that. It's just frustrating for myself to get trapped in a situation where I put myself in a bad situation where I'm afraid of making mistakes. I think it's hard to grasp on why and what not. For me, it's just going out and playing. Many times, I find a way out of it by just playing and just going out there and having fun. Almost playing with a little bit with an edge, but also with a little bit more."
Centers Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard were very good Rangers, but were traded in consecutive offseasons. Very good isn't enough for a team that has averaged 103 points across head coach Alain Vigneault's first four seasons in charge. The Rangers of late have been strong in depth, but have lacked the star power needed to get their hands on Lord Stanley's Cup.
The baton has been passed this summer from departed glue guys in Stepan and longtime alternate captain Dan Girardi to faster, highly skilled successors in Zibanejad and offense-driving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. It's now their time to lead the way.
Should Zibanejad end up signing a short-term deal and make a quick jump to stardom, he will be in line to demand mega money in his next contract. That's why the Rangers are going to need to convince Zibanejad to put pen to paper on a long-term deal. It's essentially pay more in AAV now to save money down the road.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Rangers have $7.6 million left in remaining space. Zibanejad is the team's only unsigned restricted free agent. His previous contract was a two-year, $5.25 million deal signed in the summer of 2015, while he was a member of the Ottawa Senators.
Zibanejad filed for arbitration on July 5. His hearing date has been set for July 25. It's highly unlikely that player and team will go through the ugly process of arbitration, but the clock is ticking for the Blueshirts to lock up a player who is going to be key to their future.
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