Senators sell high, save money by trading away youth

Mika Zibanejad is headed to New York with the Rangers sending Ottawa Derick Brassard. Jeff Marek breaks down how the trade works for both teams.

Two of the off-season’s quietest teams — two fairly green general managers who haven’t so much as re-signed their most important restricted free agents — struck a surprising and significant deal with each other Monday. One that could leave a lasting imprint on a pair of Eastern Conference clubs coming off disappointing seasons.

Neither Ottawa’s Pierre Dorion nor New York’s Jeff Gorton have held their respective GM posts for 13 months, so the deal of Senators’ Mika Zibanejad for the Rangers’ Derick Brassard marks a tone-setting trade for their tenures.

Moneywise, the deal makes sense for both organizations.

Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk made it loud and clear this spring that he believes he spends enough to make his club competitive.

So in addition to a fresh front office and new head coach Guy Boucher, the Senators have themselves a proven centre whose rate will be locked in through 2019 at a manageable $5 million cap hit per season. Cap hit being the operative phrase there. Brassard, 28, earned an actual salary of $13 million during the first two seasons of his front-loaded contract.

The cash-conscious Sens, who can absorb such monster cap hits as Dion Phaneuf’s, will only be on the hook for $5 million in real dollars in 2016-17 and $3.5 million for each of Brassard’s two seasons thereafter. Further, Dorion made certain the Blueshirts paid the centre his $2 million signing bonus on July 15 before signing off on the trade.

Zibanejad’s modest $2.625-million cap hit is undoubtedly attractive to Gorton, who still must hand out raises to RFA forwards Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. By sending Brassard closer to his home of Hull, Gorton now has a projected $10.65 million in space to work with.

That New York is paying Zibanejad $3.25 million in salary (more than his cap hit) for the final year of his deal is acceptable to such a wealthy team and another minor victory for Ottawa here.

By getting the younger player as well as swapping a 2018 seventh-round pick for a 2018 second-round pick in the deal, the Rangers win the long-term outlook.

One has to believe Dorion considered the long-term financials here. Brassard brings cost certainty. Zibanejad represents a potential bank breaker down the road.

The 23-year-old Swede is the third top-10 draft pick the Sens have dealt away since 2005. He’s coming off a career year in which he hung personal bests in goals (21), assists (30) and points (51). He’s also bigger than Brassard and five years younger. Would it have been possible to keep Zibanejad and still shell out for Mike Hoffman (headed for arbitration this summer), RFA Cody Ceci, and Curtis Lazar (who turns RFA in 2017)?

Brassard is an attractive addition and power-play threat (a team-high 22 points with the extra man) who should make the Sens slightly better in the short term. Not only does he have friends on the Senators, such as veteran Marc Methot, but he’s playing the best hockey of his life. Right now, he is the better player in the deal.

Brassard’s career-high 27 goals for the Rangers in 2015-16 marked the third straight year he improved his goal total. After New York was eliminated from the playoffs, he flew overseas with Team Canada in May, whipped up 11 points in 10 games and won a World Championship gold medal.

Neither team could have sold higher on these players.

Former Sens GM Bryan Murray challenged Zibanejad to grow into the No. 1 centre role last fall, hinting that Kyle Turris was more of a No. 2 pivot; Brassard should be able to step right into the top line on a team capable of offensive explosions.

“This team cannot survive not making the playoffs,” Melnyk said in March.

Monday’s trade is proof that Ottawa is hunting a return to the post-season (and those juicy gate revenues) now, while New York does not want to fall off a cliff chasing 2017 like it’s 2014.