"Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."
-- Walt Whitman
On the last day of the 2005-2006 season Jonas Johansson dressed for his one and only game in the NHL, taking the ice for the Washington Capitals. Seven shifts, four minutes, no shots, no points, and an interference penalty taken. That is one more game and four more minutes played for the Caps than has been played by Mike Ribeiro. When April comes along, that might still be the case, depending on what the league and its players association does regarding a new collective bargaining agreement.
For now, Caps fans can only imagine life with a bona fide second line center, a position that has been a problem without a solution for a while (the last time the Caps had two centers with at least 60 points was when Robert Lang and Michael Nylander did it in 2002-2003). When Nicklas Backstrom went down to injury in the team’s 38th game last season and missed the next 40 contests due to the effects of a concussion, the depth problem at center was brought into stark relief. The Caps played “center-by-committee” on the scoring lines with Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, and Mathieu Perreault. Combined they finished with 46 goals and 117 points, which on a per-82 game basis was 17-26-43. It was not an especially impressive result.
Which brings us to Mike Ribeiro, who came to the Caps last June from the Dallas Stars in a trade for forward Cody Eakin and a second round draft choice. Over the last six years in Dallas Ribeiro’s per-82 game scoring pace was 22-51-73, and his corresponding power play scoring line was 7-19-26. That last line could be very important to the Caps if you consider that Alex Ovechkin led the Caps last year with 23 power play points and led the Caps the previous year with 24 power play points.
Last season Ribeiro’s power play production was his lowest in six seasons playing in Dallas. It was part of a bigger problem in Big D, the fact that the Stars were dead last among the league’s 30 teams in total power play goals scored (33) and power play efficiency (13.5 percent). Still, his scoring or assisting on 15 of 33 total power play goals (45 percent) was roughly consistent with his contributions the previous year (23 of 55 goals; 42 percent), and better than 2009-2010 (23 of 61 goals; 38 percent).
Offense is why Ribeiro is in Washington (well, figuratively for the moment), and that – if you happen to have watched him in Dallas – might mean that there are other parts of his game not as well developed. One knock on his play in Dallas was a propensity to spend too much time on the ice on his shifts. In fact he was eighth among centers in average shift time last season (0:53) and not out there much longer, on average, than either Marcus Johansson or Nicklas Backstrom (both at 0:51 per shift). He is not especially adept at faceoffs, never having topped 46.6 percent wins in his six years in Dallas. Then again, the Caps have had faceoff winning machines in Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, and Jeff Halpern, too.
It’s of limited use to compare numbers from different teams, but let’s do that anyway. Mike Ribeiro had a larger positive difference in goals scored/for-on ice to goals scored/against-on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (+0.11) than any Capital center last season, except Mathieu Perreault (+0.95). He faced a higher quality of competition that any Capital center (numbers from behindthenet.ca). But that aside, let’s go back to that average of 73 points per 82 games over the last six years. The last time a Caps center not named “Backstrom” had more than that in a single season was back in 2000-2001 when Adam Oates, who is now the head coach for the Caps, finished with 82 points.
Mike Ribeiro had a higher share of offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 (53.7 percent) than any Cap center had last season (Nicklas Backstrom; 52.2 percent), and his offensive zone finishes, while still over 50 percent (51.0) was a net negative (-2.7); only one Cap center was in negative territory last season – Marcus Johansson (-2.1). He was on ice for more goals against than any Dallas center last season, and only Loui Eriksson among forwards was on ice for more goals against. And being challenged on faceoffs is one thing, but Ribeiro was last among 89 qualifying forwards in faceoff winning percentage last season (42.2 percent).
The Big Question… Can Mike Ribeiro be the contributor in the playoffs the Caps have lacked in the 2C slot?
It would be surprising if Mike Ribeiro did not have a regular season at the second line center slot better than that of any Caps’ center in the last ten years. But the lack of a productive second line center has been crippling to the Caps in the post season in the post-Lockout I era. Last spring the Caps got three points in 14 playoff games out of Marcus Johansson, who spent much of the season as the first or second line center. The year before, Nicklas Backstrom had two points out of the first line center slot and the Caps got six out of Jason Arnott in the second line slot in nine post season games. In 2009-2010 the Caps got a combined two points out of Eric Belanger and Brendan Morrison in seven playoff games. Mike Ribeiro is here largely to improve on that… a lot. But while he had 17 points in 18 games in his last playoff appearance, that appearance came in the 2007-2008 post season. Will being out of practice influence his performance in the post season? To the extent it does, it defeats much of the purpose of his being here.
In the end…
The convergance of Mike Ribeiro and Adam Oates in Washington will be one of the more interesting story lines of this season. Only twice in six seasons in Dallas did Ribeiro’s Stars rank in the top half of the league in scoring and only once in the top ten (ninth in 2007-2008). The Caps had what most would call a disappointing result in those scoring rankings last season, but still finished 14th. Adam Oates is expected to employ a more dynamic approach to offense than his predecessor behind the Caps’ bench, Dale Hunter. Ribeiro is here to be an important ingredient in that.
Of course, this assumes that there will be a season and that Ribeiro will wear his number “9” jersey for the Caps. If the season is missed, one wonders if folks will have to search another place for where Ribeiro makes his contributions.
Projection: 77 games, 19-48-67, plus-6
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America