Zibanejad Trade: Experience and Cost Certainty Carry the Day
The Sens probably got a little bit better, but definitely a little bit older and a little bit cheaper
Mika Zibanejad has long been described by both fans and management as a player with great potential, but he's also been a source of frustration to many. For the nay-sayers, the flashes of brilliance were all too often overshadowed by long bouts of ineffective play. When the Ottawa Senators drafted Zibanejad 6th overall in the 2011 draft, the team hoped that he would develop into the big bodied, two-way 1st line centre they had long coveted. As of this writing it's tough to argue that Zibanejad ever had quite reached that goal, and it would seem the Senators have decided they don't believe it's likely he ever will. By trading Zibanejad for Brassard, the Sens have bought themselves more certainty (both in terms of level of play and player cost) by giving away some potential upside. As players age they also accumulate NHL experience, which you can value however you like. Certainly the Sens seem to think it's an important component to a winning team:
Pierre Dorion: "Un gars de l'expérience de Derick, c'est un pas dans la bonne direction." #ledroit— Marc Brassard (@mbrassard) July 18, 2016
Brassard is probably the better of the two players at this juncture, though it's close, and you're fairly certain that what you see is what you get. Maybe Zibanejad will be the better of the two next season, maybe not. Certainly if you squint at their ages and their HERO charts long enough, you can convince yourself of almost anything:
Looming in the background of any transaction the Senators ever undertake is the impact on the team's budget. It's no secret that Eugene Melnyk has long demanded his management operate within very thin margins while fighting for the play-offs every year. Brassard is a much better piece than Zibanejad in this sense: he's locked into his contract for the next three years while Zibanejad is an RFA after this next season and will be due for a raise. Furthermore, Brassard's deal is front-loaded in terms of real dollars owed and the two most expensive seasons have just been paid for by the Rangers. The Senators are nowhere near the cap but their internal budget is all too real, so they will seek to trade that cap space for real dollar savings anywhere they can. The Brassard contract, like Phaneuf's before him, is good value in that sense.
Still, as a fan of the team it's hard to take too much solace in the idea that through clever maneuvering management has found a way to save Eugene Melnyk a few million dollars per season here and there; I don't begrudge those who are decrying this trade as just another sign of the Sens' cheapness. Some of the rationale for this trade is plainly cost saving: Dorion himself has said that the trade talks began the first week he got the job, but that the Sens wanted to wait until the Rangers had paid Brassard's $2M bonus. Without knowing exactly how much leverage this gave the Rangers, we can be certain that the particulars of the pick swap included as part of the trade would be more in Ottawa's favour had they agreed to complete the trade sooner and pay Brassard's bonus. It's never going to be easy to be a fan of a team willing to trade picks for money and that won't soon change without a change in ownership. It's a point no one particularly enjoys discussing, but any reasonable analysis of this trade has to at least mention the money component. For fans, we're left to hope that the savings will eventually be poured back into the team in some capacity (say, a long term contract for Mike Hoffman?).
Back to the players themselves: Brassard is a skilled centre who will probably get a shot at forging some chemistry with Bobby Ryan on the second line. Zibanejad-Ryan was a catastrophic duo for much of their time together, and the Sens are betting that Brassard's skill-set will better compliment Ryan's than Mika's ever did. Some of the optimists point to the fact that Brassard is a left-handed shot; Zibanejad is a righty, and he often struggled distributing the puck to Ryan via the backhand pass. Brassard's also a power-play virtuoso, and the Senators desperately need someone to ease the burden on Erik Karlsson in that area. Zibanejad has an absolute cannon of a shot, but he could never quite seem to find a way to maximize that threat on the power-play. Too many man-advantages ended with him pounding the puck either into the goalie's chest or wide of the net. Part of that is on the Sens' predictable man advantage schemes, but part of that is on Mika as well. Brassard should help in this regard.
Ultimately Brassard is a good player who makes his team better and he's a known quantity who comes with a fair degree of cost certainty. If that was all there was to this trade, it'd be an unqualified success. Unfortunately, there's all the other stuff too: in order to get a mild upgrade, the Sens got six years older and they swapped a 2nd round pick for a 7th round pick in part to save money. It's hard to feel too strongly about it one way or another but it will leave many with a general feeling of uneasiness until (unless?) the savings are used to do something like re-sign Hoffman to a long term contract.