Rangers Counting on Zibanejad to Step Up in Big Way

The money isn’t what will raise expectations on Rangers center Mika Zibanejad. Whether you pay a player five cents or $50 million doesn’t make him better or worse.

No, the expectations on Zibanejad being better and taking a step up in performance come from need.

The Rangers and Zibanejad narrowly avoided salary arbitration Tuesday, agreeing to a new five-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $5.35 million (which was Zibanejad’s demand, while the Rangers offered $4.1 million prior to the arbitration hearing).

Rangers GM Jeff Gorton was willing to go to that dollar figure to buy three years of unrestricted free agency from his 24-year-old center, who enters his second season as a Ranger.

[Fischler: Rangers Re-Sign Mika]

Having dealt Derek Stepan prior to the NHL entry draft, the Rangers need Zibanejad to take over Stepan’s offensive contributions and some of his many responsibilities in matchup and defensive roles. Whether Stepan was or wasn’t a legit No. 1 center is arguable, but the same can be said for Zibanejad, and the Rangers fell short with both last season. Now they have one.

They will go into the coming season, barring a trade, with Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, possibly J.T. Miller, David Desharnais, and perhaps either, or both, rookies Lias Andersson and Boo Nieves, as their centers. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault prefers Miller as a winger, but might have to move Miller back to his original position due to necessity.

Zibanejad is a better skater, better shooter, stronger and better on faceoffs than Stepan, but Stepan was better defensively, was a stalwart on the penalty kill, and produced solid, if not stellar, numbers. Zibanejad should benefit from having first-line type wingers and from having newcomer Kevin Shattenkirk feeding him pucks for one-timers on the power play.

“Seeing Derek being traded was a little bit of an alert to me that I might get a chance to play a bigger role,” Zibanejad said. “As a player, you always want to more responsibility and a bigger role. It’s something that I am working really hard to make sure that I take advantage of the chance that I am getting.”

He simply must, because the Rangers need him to do so.

“You always want to improve and develop and there have always been moments where you feel you can take your game to the next level and that is what I am working on in the summer, doing all the things that I can do to prepare myself for this opportunity,” Zibanejad said. “And I don’t think there is a single guy out there that would say no to an opportunity like this. I’m super, super happy and excited for the season. You always want to improve and be better than last season. I’m super pumped and excited for this upcoming season.”

Zibanejad had 14 goals, 23 assists in just 56 games last season, which started strongly for him, but hit a major speed bump when he broke his leg sliding into the end boards in overtime of a Nov. 20 game. Though he had some moments upon returning, his game didn’t seem back to where it was until the playoffs.

Now he jumps from a No. 2 center with a high ceiling to a No. 1, with Hayes jumping from No. 3 to No. 2.

The Rangers avoided arbitration, as they have every summer since 2009 when Nik Zherdev went through the process and the Rangers walked away from his awarded contract.

With the arbitration date, a 48-hour (until Thursday) buyout window opened for the Rangers. It seems unlikely they will use it on veteran defenseman Marc Staal if for no other reason than it would create eight years of dead cap space, especially since they already have six years of dead cap space due to the earlier buyout of Dan Girardi.

With the Zibanejad signing, the Rangers have approximately $3.05 million worth of cap space remaining, with just 12 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. That includes Jesper Fast, who will start the season on injured reserve after hip surgery. They have no significant players still unsigned.