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2015 RFA: Mika Zibanejad

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The second installment in this week's series, looking at the five players who will be RFAs this summer for the Ottawa Senators.

Zibanejad, upon being told he isn't worth "Jared Cowen money"
Zibanejad, upon being told he isn't worth "Jared Cowen money"
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Ottawa Senators have five players who will be RFAs this summer: Alex Chiasson (written up yesterday), Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, and Mika Zibanejad. Of these players, I think Zibanejad is the most intriguing, because he is the youngest, but has also played the most NHL games. The number of games implies we should be able to make a judgment as to his ability, but the fact that he is only 21 (turning 22 after the Sens miss the playoffs on April 18th) means that he still has lots of room left to grow.

On the one hand, he has potential. He was a sixth-overall pick, taken ahead of Sean Couturier because the Sens' brass believed he'd be the better player years down the road. His points per game has risen from 0.476 in 2012-13 to 0.478 in 2013-14 to 0.513 so far this season. His time on ice per game also rose from 13:33 to 14:18 to 15:57 over those same three seasons. Last year, he carried possession despite playing with a hodgepodge of linemates. This year, once given the regular wingers of Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman, Zibanejad has looked very good. He is faring far better than most would expect a 21-year-old second-line centre to perform.

At the same time, he has been very inconsistent thus far in his career. He debuted because of injury in the lockout-shortened season, and performed well enough to stick with the big club. Last season, he was infamously sent down to Binghamton to start the season because Stephane Da Costa worked harder over the summer or something. He returned after only a handful of games, never to be sent down again. This year, he showed up to training camp the bulkiest of his life, but some of the media said this led to him being slower and out of shape. He went the first eight games without a point. He then scored goals in back-to-back games. He has had four stretches where he has had point streaks of at least two games, but has had six stretches where he has been held pointless for at least two games in a row. After a four-point showing against the Canucks, arguably the best game of his career, he put up four points in his next five games, suggesting he'd finally come into his own. He then put up one point in his next eight games.

All that being said, he is currently seventh on the team in points, and tied for fifth in goals. Some could argue that's a product of being given good linemates and the fourth-highest offensive zone start percentage on the team. Others could argue that his early struggles came from being miscast as a defensive centre, and for starting with worse linemates. In the last few games, Pageau has been getting regular shots at the second-line centre role which hasn't helped Zibanejad's point totals.

Below is a list of the most significant RFA forwards who signed deals in the past year. The goals and points per game are for 2013-14 only.

PLAYER
AGE (July 1st, 2014)
GOALS/G
POINTS/G
CAP HIT
TERM (yrs)
Mark Arcobello (RW)
25
0.098
0.439
$0.6 m
1
Antoine Roussel (LW)
24
0.173
0.358
$2.0 m
4
Dwight King (LW)
24
0.195
0.390
$1.95 m
3
Tommy Wingels (C)
26
0.208
0.494
$2.475 m
3
Reilly Smith (RW)
23
0.244
0.622
$1.4 m
1
Jaden Schwartz (LW)
22
0.313
0.700
$2.35 m
2
Ryan Johansen (C)
21 0.402 0.768 $4.0 m 3
Mika Zibanejad (C) 22 (in 2015) 0.232 0.478

The problem with the first four on this list is that they are significantly older than Zibanejad. For most of them, UFA years were bought. Arcobello had finally broken into the league at age 25, so he was being given another year to prove himself. Johansen and probably Schwartz can be considered to be better than Zibanejad at the same age. Smith is probably a good comparison, except that I expect Zibanejad to sign a longer deal, simply because Ottawa isn't in the cap crunch that Boston was this year.

As a second comparison, here's a look at the other forwards drafted in the top ten in 2011.

PLAYER NHL GP CAREER PPG EXTENSION DATE CAP HIT TERM
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 223 0.471 Sept 19, 2013 $6.0 m 7
Gabriel Landeskog 242 0.661 Aug 15, 2013 $5.57 m 7
Jonathan Huberdeau 154 0.526 N/A N/A N/A
Ryan Strome 79 0.606 N/A N/A N/A
Mark Scheifele 117 0.487 N/A N/A N/A
Sean Couturier 248 0.411 July 20, 2013 $1.75 m 2
Mika Zibanejad
159 0.465 N/A N/A N/A

As you can see, the top two picks were locked up long-term by their teams for significant amounts of money. Three are headed to restricted free agency this summer just like Zibanejad. Couturier is the only who's been signed to a bridge deal, and that's one that I'm sure the Sens would be happy to get Zibanejad on.

Every once in a while, teams take chances and sign young players to long deals, expecting them to become a bargain. Ottawa has taken this chance with Kyle Turris and Colin Greening, as examples, with very mixed results. I doubt they'll do this with Zibanejad for two reasons: he hasn't had a true breakout season yet, and nearly all the contracts for comparable players shown here are favourable to the team. Smith and Schwartz definitely had better pre-contract seasons, so those contracts could be argued as Zibanejad's limit for one- and two-year contracts respectively.

I expect the Sens to sign Zibanejad to a two- or three-year bridge deal in the $2-2.5 million range. This would give the team more time to find out what they have, with him still being an RFA at the end. Then two to three years from now, they will have the opportunity to lock him up for the majority of his most productive years with a much better idea of his ceiling.