The implications of Mika Zibanejad’s impossibly bad first quarter-plus of 2020-21 reverberate far beyond this season.
Because unless No. 93 mounts a revival over the final 40 games equivalent to Derek Jeter’s 2011 in which the shortstop hit .336 the second half following a .257 opening three months, there is no way the Rangers will be able to extend their putative first-line center’s contract, and what happens next?
This was going to be the summer of decision on Zibanejad, who is on track to become a free agent after next season. This was going to be the offseason in which the two sides would nail down a long-term extension.
The questions regarding the upcoming deal would have been these for the Swede, who will turn 28 in April: A) Six, seven or eight years?; B) $8 million or $9 million per?
Now the question is, what in the world are the Rangers going to do about their first-line center spot? Now the question is, with Ryan Strome’s contract also up after 2021-22, are the Rangers actually going to be in the market for two top-six centers?
Zibanejad got off his 12-game goal-scoring schneid with an empty-netter in his team’s 4-1 victory in Washington on Saturday, and that made for somewhat of a feel-good narrative following the match in which he skated with Artemi Panarin on his left from start to finish for the first time since Dec. 10, 2019.
But the game hardly marked a feel-good performance from Zibanejad, who has four points (2-2) and has yet to record a true five-on-five goal. The center seemed especially shy throughout the contest and was so defensively deficient on Dmitry Orlov’s second-period goal that a similar lapse committed by Julien Gauthier would have gotten No. 12 nailed to the bench for the remainder of the contest and sentenced to street clothes for at least a week.
Is it physical? Is he diminished because of after-effects of having contracted COVID-19 in early January? Is there an utter lack of confidence that undermines essentially every shift?
Was he insulted by not being awarded the captaincy that seemed to be coming to him? Did Zibanejad put too much pressure on himself to match last season’s insane finish in which he scored 23 goals in the final 22 games with a 26.7 shooting percentage? Or, was he unable to handle the burden of being expected to perform at an elite level?
If there is a rational explanation for the total eclipse of Zibanejad’s game, the repeated whiffing on one-timers that would have been automatic-back-of-the-net 11 months ago, it would be comforting to know. But unless it relates to a medical condition — and the Rangers have run a battery of tests on No. 93 without finding a cause — then the effect of this performance has both left the hierarchy in an impossible situation leading up to the summer while compromising the entire program.
The Rangers, who have zero organizational depth at center, would be staring into a 2022 abyss down the middle unless they devote the next year-and-half to grooming Filip Chytil for a top-six role, and yes, that would mean elevating him in the lineup immediately upon his return from injury even if it might cost the team points in the standings. (It might not, you know.) Fact is, Zibanejad’s walkabout has put the team on a pretty urgent need-to-know basis on the 21-year-old Czech.
Because seriously. What are the Rangers possibly going to be able to win without an upper-echelon first-line center? And 2022-23 is when they’re supposed to blossom into legit contenders.
Maybe Zibanejad — who owns a full no-move clause in his contract — will turn this around over the next two months the way Jeter did 10 years ago. Even then, extension negotiations would be a pretty dicey affair. Can the team commit long-term at an appropriate price point in a flat-cap universe that is unforgiving when it comes to mistakes? And again, what would a mutually agreeable price point even be?
You probably know where this is going. That’s right, across I-80 West to I-90 North to 1-90 West right into Buffalo, where Jack Eichel could very well be ripe for the picking at the age of 24 and with five years remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $10 million.
If it gets to that with Eichel, who is going on his sixth year without a playoff appearance since his 2015 second-overall selection out of B.U., then the Rangers will need to be prepared for the conversation starting with Alexis Lafreniere.
Moving Eichel — and to the Rangers, no less — would create a public relations firestorm in Buffalo. Acquiring a player with both the special qualities and marquee appeal of Lafreniere might allow the franchise to minimize the damage. The Sabres aren’t moving their captain to New York for a handful of expendable parts.
But would the Blueshirts be willing to entertain that? Would they have the stomach for it? Maybe the better question is, would the hierarchy have much of a choice? If this is truly Zibanejad’s season, what in the world are the Rangers going to do?