Rangers extend Zibanejad, likely out of Eichel sweepstakes

Rangers extend Zibanejad, likely out of Eichel sweepstakes
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Consider the Rangers basically out of the Jack Eichel trade market, and Mika Zibanejad definitively not headed toward free agency. The Rangers confirmed they signed Zibanejad to a contract extension on Sunday.

While the Rangers didn’t confirm the actual details, multiple reporters indicate that Zibanejad signed an eight-year extension. The cap hit is reportedly $8.5 million.

For the 2021-22 season, Zibanejad carries a bargain $5.35M cap hit. Zibanejad’s extension then kicks his cap hit to $8.5M from 2022-23 on. It’s an interesting investment in Zibanejad, being that he’s 28.

Zibanejad certainly looked pleased to remain with the Rangers:

With Adam Fox entering a contract year, the Rangers still have some salary cap challenges ahead. But any squeeze apparently won’t cost the Rangers the ultra-skilled Zibanejad.

The good and bad of Rangers’ Zibanejad extension

Again, it’s important to remember that Zibanejad still has a year left on his current contract. He’ll be 29 once that extension kicks in, costing the Rangers that $8.5M clip from 2022-23 through 2029-30.

No doubt, the Rangers are hoping Zibanejad ages well.

They also must hope that Zibanejad stays healthy.

Last season, Zibanejad played all 56 games, scoring 24 goals and 50 points. In 2019-20, he played 57 of 70 games, yet managed 41 goals and 75 points. Injuries also limited Zibanejad during his debut Rangers season (56 GP in 2016-17).

Thanks to those injuries, there’s sometimes been a question of what could have been.

[2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Those fewer reps also make it harder to weigh any concerns about style of play. If he loses a step, could red flags about underlying stats turn into on-ice woes?

Honestly, the Rangers’ decision to give Zibanejad an extension mostly makes sense. Simply put, top-line centers don’t grow on trees. For all of the lottery draft luck the Rangers enjoyed, their best young players have mostly been wingers or defensemen.

All things considered, plenty expected Zibanejad to get a raise beyond $8.5M. So, there could be mild savings there. The term of the deal still makes it a big, big risk.

Rangers must sign Fox, other young stars; Salary cap filling up

And, not that far removed from a full-fledged rebuild, the Rangers’ salary cap structure is now brimming with long-term contracts.

  • Zibanejad, 28, is now locked down for nine seasons.
  • Artemi Panarin, 29, carries an $11.64M cap hit through 2025-26.
  • Jacob Trouba, 27, costs $8M per year for five seasons (2025-26), too. He quietly rebounded a bit last season, but that’s still a yikes.
  • Should the Rangers have taken their lumps by trading Chris Kreider on his last contract? That thought could bubble up if the 30-year-old’s rugged style makes his contract ($6.5M cap, expires after 2026-27) look rotten.
  • It’s understandable that the Rangers signed Igor Shesterkin, a promising goalie. If the 25-year-old delivers as he has already, that $5.6667M cap hit could be a deal with the devil. It’s a gamble being that he’s only logged 47 games at the NHL level, however.
  • If Barclay Goodrow plays the same supporting role that he did in Tampa Bay, his deal might look a bit extravagant. The 28-year-old carries a $3.641M cap hit through 2026-27.
  • It’s at least worth noting that the Rangers have $5.5M devoted to Ryan Lindgren and Patrik Nemeth for the next three seasons.

Phew. That’s … a lot, right? At least for a team that still hasn’t made it back to the playoffs since sending out that rebuilding letter?

[Rangers among teams facing the most pressure this season]

Then factor in future expenses.

Adam Fox, 23, enters a contract year this season. As the reigning Norris Trophy winner, Fox has to be eyeing Cale Makar‘s $9M AAV — and that could be on the low end. The Rangers are fortunate that he’s a pending RFA without arbitration rights, but expect a big price tag there.

The Rangers’ two recent draft lottery wins are tough to gauge.

Kaapo Kakko also enters a contract year in 2021-22. After a tough rookie season, Kakko showed underlying signs of growth in 2020-21. There’s at least some argument that the Rangers might want to extend Kakko before he truly flourishes.

With two years left on his deal, Alexis Lafrenière is another question mark. At the earliest, the Rangers could extend Lafrenière following this season. Could he enjoy a big breakthrough as soon as this season? It’s certainly possible.

There’s also K'Andre Miller (two years remaining), Vitali Kravtsov (contract year), Ryan Strome (contract year), and others to consider.

[Rangers’ 2021-22 season preview]

If the Rangers’ mix of quality prime players (Zibanejad, Panarin) gels with those young up-and-comers, then they’ll rise quickly. However, if it ends up clear that they need more? The squeeze might be tight enough that it could be hard to make all but the smallest improvements.

Ready or not, the Zibanejad extension signals that the Rangers are again spending like contenders.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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