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DJ Zbad: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mika Zibanejad trade

There are a few trades that live in infamy in Senators history as slam dunk losses for the franchise. Christer Olsson (5 points in 25 games) for Pavol Demitra (768 points in 847 games, including 17 points in 31 games for Ottawa pre-trade). Ben Bishop for Cory Conacher. That Matt Duchene trade that saw Ottawa give up the 4th overall pick to Colorado doesn’t look too hot these days. Dealing away problem child Mike Hoffman for an over the hill Mikkel Boedker, only to see Hoffman end up back in the division with Florida two hours later for a better return than Ottawa got, that was pretty embarrassing.

Which brings us to Mika Zibanejad and a 2nd round pick in exchange for Derrick Brassard and a 7th round pick to the New York Rangers. Yikes right? What a terrible deal. Zibby (or DJ Zbad if you run into him on the dance floor) has been lights out for the Rangers for the last two years. This deal has Ottawa fans kicking themselves, wondering, how on earth could we possibly have thought this was a good deal? We gave up a 40 goal gu that we used a 6th overall pick on who can light up dance floors and opposing defenses with equal aplomb? How could this happen?

Visual evidence that your friendly neighborhood Sens blogger has nothing but love for DJ Z-Bad (Image: NY Post)

I’m here to tell you, this trade wasn’t a loss. In fact, it’s one of the most underrated moves in franchise history, and has set up the franchise very well for years to come. While we will get into a little bit of revisionist history and a little bit of trade tree recovery, even the direct returns did wonders for this franchise. Also bear in mind that this article is being written by a dude who owns a Cream Heritage O jersey with Zibanejad on the back, so this all comes from a place of love for Zibby. Let’s break it down!

Before the trade:

Mika Zibanejad was drafted 6th overall in the 2011 draft by the Ottawa Senators, immediately ahead of current Flyers and Jets superstars Sean Couturier and Mark Scheifele. Zibby would go on to record one assist in 9 games the following season’s rookie test run, and would spend the next two seasons putting in time in Binghamton while scoring around a half point per game in the big leagues. In 2014-15, he would cement his place in the lineup by scoring 46 points in 80 games, improving slightly the next year with 51 points in 81 games. Not bad numbers for a tweener 2nd/3rd line center, but starting to lag behind what some of his fellow top 10 draft picks from that year were doing. Chatter was growing in Sens spheres as to what his ceiling might actually be, and opinions were split.

It’s also worth mentioning that Zibby was earning $2.625 million per season at this time with Ottawa, and would be an RFA demanding a raise a year’s time. With numbers like he was putting up to that point, it would be difficult to justify a huge raise or term over that amount, an amount that the Rangers would happily double in both categories. Seems silly in hindsight, but the fanbase was certainly split on his long term prospects at this point and whether he would be worth a the contract he would demand.

Derrick Brassard on the other hand, was five years older, but also drafted sixth overall, in 2006. After six years averaging a half point a game for the Blue Jackets, he moved on the New York Rangers where he broke out and became a 60 and 58 point (27 goals) scorer in the two seasons before the trade to Ottawa. In those two seasons he also had 20 points in 24 playoff games, helping the team make the cup finals. He was defensively responsible and saved his best for the biggest games. It also helped that he was a local boy, having grown up in Hull.

In all, the trade didn’t look like a slam dunk in either direction. Ottawa was in “win now mode” despite missing the playoffs. That meant a second line center they could count on, and Zibby was not that guy at this stage of his career. It also didn’t hurt that the Rangers had just paid a major multi-million dollar signing bonus to Brassard just before the trade, likely accounting for why Ottawa had to give up a second round pick while only getting a 7th in return. The cap hits were similar, but in real money, Brassard was the cheaper option with a slightly stronger resume to that point. But let’s be real, only Eugene Melnyk cared about the real dollars going out, and the franchise essentially sold a better draft pick to the Rangers.

Just after the trade:

- Brassard outscored Zibanejad the following season, 39 points to 37.

- Zibanejad had a much better point per game average as he only played 56 games to Brassard’s 80. However, Brassard had an exceptionally unlucky shooting percentage of %7.

- The Rangers and Senators met in Round 2 of the playoffs that year, a series that Ottawa won in six games.

- Brassard (1 goal) was a key contributor in that series outside of the scoresheet, but was outscored by Zibanejad (1 goal, 4 assists) in their head to head matchup. When looking at the playoff run as a whole however, Zibanejad ended the Rangers’ run with 9 points in 12 games, while Brassard had 11 points in 19 games. Subtract his one goal in six games against the rangers, that’s 10 points in 13 games. Math is fun!

So the first win for Ottawa is that they actually won the head to head matchup between their trading partner. Who could forget this play from Karlsson to Brassard in the first round against Boston? ( If you’ll excuse me, I need to hook that highlight directly into my veins for a second.

So if you’re feeling regret about this trade as a Senators fan and wish they never made the deal, you’re also saying that you would trade your memories of the 2017 run in which Brassard played a key role in getting the team as far as it went.

The draft picks involved:

Let’s take a side track here and take a look at what became of those two swapped draft picks in 2018.

Ottawa would select Luke Loheit with the pick received in the deal. As a forward with only 5 points in 28 NCHC games with the University of Minnestoa-Duluth in his most recent season, it’s not a stretch to think that the NHL is out of reach for the 21 year old.

The Rangers would package Ottawa’s second round pick and a third rounder to Detroit to bring on defenseman Brendan Smith ahead of the 2017 playoffs. A bottom pairing defenceman who hasn’t played more than 63 games in a season, and doesn’t score much (110 points in 526 games). A useful defender, but you might question if acquiring him was worth the second and third round picks they gave up to get him. I’ll leave that question to those who actually watch the Rangers on a regular basis.

We’ll give the Rangers the edge here, as much as Eugene would want me to include the dollar savings from this deal.

Everything is awful for both teams in 2018, 2019, and 2020:

Both teams would implode in the standings the following season after the 2017 playoffs, and neither team would sniff the playoffs between 2018 and today.

And no, the Rangers getting blasted out of the play-in round in 3 straight games during the 2020 Covid-Cup when they otherwise would have been in the bottom third of the league doesn’t count as making the playoffs. Sorry, not sorry.

In 2018 and 2019, Zibanejad would score 57 goals, 121 points in 154 combined games, along with an ugly -35 rating over that time. Plus minus is a very flawed stat to be sure, but it can be useful in determining a player’s defensive acumen when the numbers skews to one extreme or another. This applies to Zibby and his high level scoring numbers coupled with a plus minus that low. Of course, Zibanejad would explode offensively in what is likely a career year in 2019 with 41 goals and 75 points in 57 games, tilting the perception of the trade towards the Rangers ever further. At age 28 and the end of his prime approaching, he likely won’t reach those anomalous point per game numbers again, even if another 40 goal season may still be on the table if everything skews right for him.

In 2017, Ottawa would go from Game 7 double overtime in the conference finals, to a .500 start, to trading for Matt Duchene, to cratering in the standings (which allowed them to select Brady Tkachuk in the 2018 draft). The team never really recovered, and blew it all up a mere two months after selling the farm to acquire Duchene. The team would endure it’s most embarrassing stretch in its existence from here, selling off fan favorites, acquiring high cap hit/low money out deals, bottoming out on the standings, and enough ridiculous off ice drama to fill an entire season of the Jerry Springer show.

Brassard himself was off to a better start in 2017-18 than in 2017, scoring 38 points in 58 games, pumping up his value ahead of getting traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins that same trade deadline. Brassard’s prime came to an end just as Pittsburgh overpaid for him at the deadline, and he’s bounced around the league ever since, never putting up more than 32 points in a season while living out of a suitcase in Pittsburgh, Florida, Colorado, New York (Islanders), and Arizona in just over two years. Here I thought he was still on Colorado when I was researching for this article, but what do I look like? His travel agent? We’ll get back to Ottawa’s return for Brassard in a little bit.

Neither team has really won anything in this timeframe, but the Rangers did have extraordinary luck in the draft lottery, drafting Kaapo Kaako second overall and Alexis Lafreneiere first overall in that time while not completely bottoming out. For future positioning, Ottawa has done a better job or tearing it down to the studs and bringing in sheer quantity of good looking prospects, but hasn’t had the same lottery luck. We’ll call this a tie over this timeframe.

So where are they now?

The Rangers have a top line player in Zibanejad right now. That much is undeniable. You can’t argue with his scoring stats, even if those 41 goals in 57 games is almost certainly not repeatable, even playing with Artemi Panarin. They’re also getting a bargain on him at an exceedingly low cap hit of just $5.35 million. Zibanejad’s stats for this season, 48 points in 55 games, are also inflated by two all-time back to back performance games against the Philadelphia Flyers in which he scored 12 points. For those playing the home game, that’s 36 points in the other 53 games he’s played in this season. Those are Brassard-esque numbers when Brassard was the age Zibanejad is now. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, and will likely re-sign in New York. Say what you will about Zibby, the guy can get on heaters with the best of them.

But to what end? The Rangers have been between middling, terrible, and on a bit of an upswing this season, but still well out of the playoffs ever since the 2017 season. So they acquired an excellent player, signed him to a team friendly contract just to waste his prime on lost seasons. They claim to still be rebuilding, but do you really sign players like Artemi Panarin if you’re rebuilding?

Also, since we mentioned how much of a tire fire Ottawa was from 2018 till about the 15 game mark of this season, it’s only fair to mention that the Rangers are currently undergoing their own embarassing and dramatic moments in the spotlight as we speak. The team has missed the playoffs 4 years straight, put out a whiny tweet about player safety that got them fined $250,000 by the league, and got their GM and president fired for going against the message that got them fined in the first place. I know Tom Wilson is a dirty player and agitator, but this is the nuttiest response from ownership and management to a player like that since Eugene Melnyk said he had forensic evidence against Matt Cooke after his skate cut Erik Karlsson’s achilles tendon. Artemi Panarin had to leave the team for a few weeks for reasons that will make a great Hollywood thriller some day. They’ve been good enough to likely finish in the best non- playoff spot in a very tough Metro division, which probably means they’ll win the lottery again this off-season and move up several spots. The Rangers certainly win this year’s most dramatic team award in the NHL, a solid achievement considering the Arizona Coyotes still play in this league. The Arizona Coyotes still play in the NHL right?

What about the Sens in this case?

Well, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel after wandering the wilderness of the NHL for the last few seasons. We haven’t seen Eugene Melnyk make a fool out of himself this season, mostly because we haven’t seen Eugene Melnyk whatsoever. The sell-off is complete, so there’s no hand wringing among the fan base over which beloved star they’re going to lose at this trade deadline. While the Rangers’ brass has spilled their 7th drink all over their suit and is currently throwing up in a planter in the corner. The Senators are 19-15-4 since February 12 as of this writing, and expectations have returned to the Senators, starting next season.

Part of that optimism? The return from trading Brassard to Pittsburgh. 22-year old goalie Filip Gustavsson has forced himself into the expansion draft protection conversation with a 3-1-2 record with a sparkling 1.87 GAA and .944 save percentage. While he hasn’t been part of the team much yet, young defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker is looking like a top 4 RHD that the team has been missing since Marc Methot left town. The Senators drafted JBD in the late first round, after turning the Pittsburgh Penguins pick received from the Brassard trade into a 26th overall pick (Bernard Docker) and a 48th overall pick (Johnny Tychonick). In the interest of fairness, it’s worth noting that the Pittsburgh pick was originally 22nd overall, but was traded to the Rangers for the two aforementioned picks. At 22nd, the Rangers selected promising defenseman K’Andre Miller, who’s wrapping up his first season in the NHL with 11 points in 52 games.

There was also a swap of third round picks and Ian Cole involved in the Brassard deal, but this is getting complicated enough as it is, so who cares?

So let’s recap:

So what does each team have to show for this trade?

- Ottawa won the direct head to head match up in the playoffs following the trade in 2017, a series in which both Brassard and Zibanejad both played key roles. Zibanejad had a bigger impact on the scoreboard, Brassard had better scoring overall throughout the playoffs. This is a point in Ottawa’s favor.

- Team success has eluded both teams ever since, with neither playing in a playoff game since, and generally being found at the bottom of the standings. Nobody wins here.

- Ottawa sold high on Brassard after that run in 2017 right before his production cratered and he started bouncing around the league. So the bottom line is that for trading Zibanejad, Ottawa has 2017 playoff memories that likely wouldn’t have happened without the deal, a probable future number 1 goaltender in Filip Gustavsson, a World Junior gold medal winner/elite NCAA defenceman with top 4 potential who is just breaking into the league, and another middling defense prospect.

- The Rangers have a top line scorer signed to a great contract, but with defensive deficiencies and who has not led his team to a single playoff appearance. It should also be noted that Zibanejad would likely not reach the personal heights he’s reached in New York in Ottawa. He’s a big personality, born to shine under the brightest lights in both the rink, his city, and the clubs. His vibe never truly meshed with the community the way other superstars have in the past.

So after 2400 words, here’s the bottom line. If the Senators had kept Zibby, they’d likely have even less team success than what they’ve had since they traded him, and his prime would have been wasted as the team fell apart around him. Pretty much like the Rangers have done with his prime and how the team’s ownership and managerial leadership is falling apart right now. All this is assuming Ottawa could even get him signed at that time, which I’m not so sure about.

Instead, by trading Zibanejad, they had an epic playoff run that captured the imaginations of the fanbase directly helped by the asset they got in return, sold high on that asset, and now have two exciting prospects breaking in right when the team will need those positions filled most moving forward. If the Rangers had won a cup or even made the playoffs in this time, we would be having a different conversation. Man, I should have just said that at the beginning and saved myself the time writing this novel.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trade back when looking at it that way. Ottawa is in better shape both past, present and future from having made this deal.

And that’s how I learned to stop worrying and love the Mika Zibanejad trade.

By Andrew Sztein | Sens Nation Hockey


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