Why the Senators win big with Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad contracts

Ottawa’s off-season to-do list looked daunting entering the off-season, but Bryan Murray hit home runs with the Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad deals.

The Ottawa Senators dazzled us with their Cinderella story in the second half of 2014-15. General manager Bryan Murray, however, couldn’t savor the run too long. His off-season to do list was gargantuan. He had to decide on signing Andrew Hammond and figuring out his goaltending situation altogether. Murray had to lock up coach Dave Cameron, too. And, most importantly, Murray had to sort through his collection of high-impact restricted free agents: Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, Mike Hoffman, Alex Chiasson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

So far, so very good, Mr. Murray.

The Sens inked Hammond to a three-year, $4.05-million contract May 20, taking on little risk since the cap hit wasn’t astronomical. Next up was Cameron’s two-year extension, finalized last week, plus an affordable two-year extension for Pageau.

And Thursday marked a legitimate coup for Ottawa. As reported by beat writer and THN Senators correspondent Bruce Garrioch, RFAs Stone and Zibanejad have signed extensions.

Stone’s is a thing of beauty. He had 47 points in 46 games from Jan. 1 onward. He finished runner-up to Aaron Ekblad for the Calder Trophy. Stone showed enough to command a legit long-term deal instead of a bridge contract, yet Murray somehow managed to combine both. Stone will earn $3.5 million annually over three years instead of the more common two-year bridge deal. The cap hit is reasonable enough that it’s not remotely an overpay and, because Stone’s under contract for three seasons, it could wind up a massive steal in a couple years should Stone continue improving. Now that he’s elevated his subpar skating to acceptable NHL levels, the sky’s the limit, as he has a natural scoring touch. He’ll be an RFA again after 2017-18.

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Zibanejad’s two-year extension will pay him $2.625 million annually and looks much more like your standard bridge deal. We know the cautionary tales, a la P.K. Subban, but Zibanejad hasn’t accomplished enough yet to earn that gaudy, lengthy extension. A “prove it” contract makes more sense. Zibanejad is a first-round pick and a big center with speed and skill, so it’s more likely than not he does “prove it” and earn much more money on his next pact, but that’ll be a good problem for Ottawa to have if it happens. It’ll mean Zibanejad has blossomed into a true No. 1 center. He’s on the way now, just 22 and fresh off a 20-goal, 46-point campaign.

Stone and Zibanejad will earn just $6.125 million combined going forward, leaving the Sens $4.624 million in cap space, with Chiasson and Hoffman left to re-sign and scheduled for arbitration.

Murray will also likely relieve Ottawa of Robin Lehner’s or Craig Anderson’s cap hit in the coming days via trade. It appears this team will keep its improving skater core very much intact and, if Murray succeeds with his goalie deal, there may even be room left for a mid-range free agent signing. Bravo.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin