All Summer long, the speculation has been about whether the Rangers could pull off a deal that would bring disgruntled – and injured – Buffalo center Jack Eichel to New York, but instead of a big trade, Chris Drury has signed Mika Zibanejad through to the end of the 2029-30 season.
The eight year extension – which kicks in next season at an AAV of $8.5M – means the Rangers will have at least one of their top two center spots resolved going into next season. While the eight years are not without risk, the Rangers will be expecting at least half of the years to remain productive before he heads into the latter stages of his NHL career.
Whether extending Zibanejad was always the plan remains uncertain at this time, but recent moves to extend Elias Pettersson in Vancouver and Aleksander Barkov in Florida, mean that the market for viable alternatives has shrunk somewhat. Going into next Summer without a deal, probably would have cost the Rangers more money, or forced them to overpay for a lesser option like Tomas Hertl of San Jose.
Even with this announcement, the Rangers depth at center remains an area of weakness. Ryan Strome is set to become a UFA at the end of the season, and is in line for a substantial raise that will almost certainly put him out of the range of Chris Drury‘s available budget.
Of course the Rangers likely hope that 22 year old Filip Chytil can step into that role. If the young Czech can prove this year that he can make the jump, it’ll help save a few dollars in the short term, and perhaps provide enough breathing room for the GM to get out from under two of the heavier contracts on the roster.
Alternatively Drury could turn to the trade market, and use some of his defensive depth to try and acquire an affordable center from another team.
Resigning Zibanejad was the first step in addressing the Rangers needs at center in the mid to long term. The contract is far from perfect, and the Rangers will carry risk through the entirety of the time they hold the contract. Starting the contract at 29 likely means the Rangers likely are paying a declining Zibanejad for much of the eight year term. How sharp that decline is, and when it kicks in remains to be seen.
On the plus side, the Rangers largely know what they’re getting, and they have a player who has succeeded in New York already. Despite earlier concussion histories, Zibanejad has remained largely healthy over the last couple of seasons and his style of play means he’s perhaps less likely to wear down that the type of forward who uses his body on a more regular basis.
The UFA market for center is likely to remain very competitive over the coming seasons, with few top tier candidates making it to free agent status. Those that do are likely to be substantially overpaid, as we saw with the likes of Philip Danault this past off-season.
When taken in that context, the deal is probably more good than bad. It could still cause problems in the future, in much the same was as Chris Kreider‘s contract likely spelled the end to Pavel Buchnevich‘s tenure with the Rangers, but as it stands today, it looks like the prudent decision.