By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers and restricted free agent center Mika Zibanejad have some work to do if they are to avoid a Tuesday salary arbitration hearing.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Zibanejad is seeking $5.35 million, while the Blueshirts countered with a $4.1 million offer.
Typically, these are hard negotiations that sometimes go down to the wire, with the final details being hammered out in an 11-hour compromise. In the case of Zibanejad and the Rangers, there isn’t a massive difference to be bridged. The likelihood of the two sides going through the bitter process of arbitration remains extremely slim.
If Zibanejad and the Rangers were to meet exactly in the middle, you’re looking at a yearly salary just north of $4.7 million. But there’s going to be a sliding scale that’s going to increase in average annual value depending on how long of a contract the sides can live with.
The Tampa Bay Lightning recently re-signed key center Tyler Johnson to a seven-year, $35 million ($5 million AAV) contract. Johnson, 26, is a good comparable for the kind of player Zibanejad, 24, could become in the near future. Johnson has averaged 0.73 points per game over the past three seasons and finished 19th and eighth in Selke Trophy voting in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Zibanejad is viewed by the Rangers as a high-potential, two-way center capable of developing into a real asset on the power play. His points per game has risen from 0.58 to 0.63 to 0.66 over the past three seasons. Can he soon become as effective as Johnson on both end of the ice? His skillset and application points to it being a genuine possibility. Zibanejad finished as the Rangers’ playoff points leader, putting up nine points in 12 games (.75 per game).
It’s important for the Rangers to avoid a two-year bridge deal. Back in 2013, they signed a then-23-year-old Derek Stepan to a cap-friendly $6.15 million contract. Two summers later, Stepan earned a six-year, $39 million ($6.5 million AAV) contract. The Rangers traded Stepan on June 23 to free up cap space and to gain flexibility. Had he not been traded, a full no-trade clause would have kicked in after July 1 and Stepan would have been able to block any deal.
There’s plenty of middle ground to be found in both salary and term to satisfy both Zibanejad and the Blueshirts. According to Cap Friendly, the Rangers have roughly $8.4 million in remaining space.
I don’t think Zibanejad’s ask of $5.35 million is outrageous. That’s close to what he could earn on average if the Rangers wish to lock him down to a four or five-year deal. Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton and agent Monir Kalgoum will be rolling the ball back and forth ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
Perhaps, a four-year deal near $5.1 million AAV will be the kind of compromise both sides can live with.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey