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I don’t believe the Rangers have any intention of replacing Mika Zibanejad with Jack Eichel next season. It is possible they could add Eichel, whose relationship with the Sabres represents a case study of next-level dysfunction, but no one should make that assumption, either.
The Blueshirts need to import a veteran leader with a track record of NHL team success. There was a reason, former GM Neil Smith said back in the day, that he traded for Oilers and not Sharks. Not only hasn’t one player on the roster won the Stanley Cup, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba (once as a Jet) are the only guys who have even played in the conference finals.
Eichel, coming off a herniated disk and other assorted ailments, has never played in a playoff game in his six years in the league. Is that necessarily on the 24-year-old team captain? Of course not, but neither does he check the box about veteran leadership or having a successful team résumé.
The Rangers also need a player for their top-six who will set a physical tone and force the opposition to back off. Would Eichel do that?
No one will have more insight on Eichel than Blueshirts’ decider Chris Drury, who was represented by the same agent during his playing career as Eichel. The Rangers won’t be dealing with any mysteries in regards to Eichel.
The mystery is how the Rangers would be able to accommodate Eichel’s $10 million cap hit on a contract that runs through 2025-26 in concert with a Zibanejad extension that surely would be worth no less than $8 million per?
How much closer to a championship would the Rangers be with a hypothetical annual expenditure of $18 million on their two top centers if they are Eichel and Zibanejad?
When right, Zibanejad is a goal-scoring machine. He was right down the stretch this year, recording 17 goals in his final 25 games on a 21.3 shooting percentage after thundering down the track last year with 24 goals in his final 25 games on a 22.6 shooting percentage. A full-season of health, support and confidence and, mark it down, Zibanejad will score 50.
He is the Rangers’ lethal weapon and the team would be crazy not to want him on their side.
It is a question of for how much and for how long an extension for Zibanejad, who has one year remaining on his contract leading to unrestricted free agency. It is a question of whether you believe that Zibanejad has the necessities to be a top-six center on a Stanley Cup championship team.
Well, no, it doesn’t matter at all what you believe, only what Drury and the supporting front office staff believe about Zibanejad, who finally came clean on Monday on just how much damage contracting COVID-19 a week before training camp did to his first half-season.
“It was a unique situation, obviously, having COVID and having one practice before the season started,” No. 93 said on the club’s breakup day. “I think I tried to tell myself that I was feeling good and that I was feeling fine, but it wasn’t … it wasn’t easy.
“I didn’t really feel up to speed after that and it took me a while to get, kind of, get back physically and mentally, and I didn’t want to have anything to kind of have an excuse, or whatever, and also I didn’t want to tell myself that and give myself an excuse.
“That was the reason I didn’t talk about it as much as people asked me about it.”
Zibanejad has never fallen back on alibis. He has been a straight-up guy through five years on Broadway. I think I wish he had sat out until he regained his strength instead of appearing as an apparition many nights, but it is not for me to second-guess handling of a personal health issue. He turned the year his way, he said, through the support of his teammates, his fiancée, family and friends.
“To end the season the way I did was obviously a huge confidence boost and with everything that went on the first six weeks, I’m happy I was able to bounce back, get through it and be able to take that with me,” said the Swede. “I don’t think I’m going to have any situation like that the start of this season.”
Zibanejad is going to be 29 by the time his next contract kicks in. The Rangers would likely want to hold the line at a five-year term. If that is not acceptable to Zibanejad, if he demands the same seven years the club awarded equivalent-age Kreider last year, it probably won’t fly.
There is mutual interest in extending the relationship. It will be on both parties to make it work. And then it will be on the Rangers to fortify the top of the depth chart so that Zibanejad can thrive.
Would that feature the acquisition of Eichel? I’m pretty skeptical about that being the way to go.
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