“The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.”
-- John Foster Dulles
When the Washington Capitals traded Cody Eakin and a draft pick to the Dallas Stars for Mike Ribeiro on June 22, 2012, folks might have been pardoned for thinking that the Caps solved a long-standing problem – finding someone who could reliably center the second line. The Capitals did not have what one might call an incumbent in that position since Sergei Fedorov played 52 games there in the 2008-2009 season.
Oh, they tried, all right. Brendan Morrison got a shot for one season. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Jason Arnott, Eric Belanger… all of them had a turn (or more).
With Mike Ribeiro, the Caps had a bona fide scoring line center with eight consecutive seasons of more than 50 points on his resume. The Caps did not have a full-time center not named “Backstrom” record 50 points in a season since Michael Nylander had 56 points in 2002-2003.
Ribeiro was as advertised. He finished second on the club in total scoring (49 points), third in goals, tied for first in the league in power play scoring (with teammate Alex Ovechkin). He was arguably the Caps’ most valuable player in the first half of the season, going 9-19-28, plus-3 in his first 22 games.
But all was not smooth sailing, at least at 5-on-5. Ribeiro spent most of his 5-on-5 ice time in the 2013 season with Troy Brouwer and Alex Ovechkin. He also spent large chunks of full and even strength time with Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich. In the case of Brouwer, Ovechkin, and Laich, those players fared worse in terms of team goals scored for per 20 minutes (GF20 at stats.hockeyanalysis.com) skating with Ribeiro than they did when apart.
Ribeiro’s 5-on-5 possession numbers were nothing to get excited about, either. Among 14 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games, he had the second worst raw Corsi on-ice value and the second worst Corsi on-ice relative to off-ice. And there was the matter of his taking more than twice as many penalties per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time as he drew.
We can put his even strength effectiveness in another context. Ribeiro tied for 71st in even strength points this season, one point behind Chicago’s Bryan Bickell and one more than the player for whom he was traded, Cody Eakin.
Even on the power play there was a sense of there being less there than a first look might suggest. Yes, Ribeiro tied for the league lead in power play points with teammate Alex Ovechkin. His six power play goals tied for 18th in the league, but he had only one power play goal in his last 32 games. He did close with a rush in power play assists, recording eight in his last eight games of the regular season, but that came after recording only three power play assists in his previous 18 games.
Odd Ribeiro Statistic… “29.0.” Mike Ribeiro connected on nine of 31 shots on goal in his first 22 games, a 29.0 percent shooting percentage. He was only four for 32 in his last 26 games (12.5 percent) but still finished fifth in the league at 20.6 percent. It was the second time in his career he finished over 20 percent for the season in shooting percentage (25.2 percent in 2007-2008 with Dallas).
Game to Remember… April 20th at Montreal. It might seem odd that the game picked here would be one in which Mike Ribeiro did not record a shot attempt, but he was a factor nonetheless. It was his faceoff win against Lars Eller back to Karl Alzner that started a play on which Troy Brouwer scored barely a minute after the Caps took a 1-0 lead in the first period. It was Ribeiro winning a battle along the wall against Francis Bouillon, sliding the puck to Marcus Johansson, who fed Brouwer for another goal to make it 3-0. Then, with the score 4-0 and the Caps on a power play, it was Ribeiro faking a shot from the right point, and starting a ‘round-the-horn passing play, feeding Mike Green, who sent the puck along to Alex Ovechkin for a shot from the left-wing circle that beat goalie Carey Price. Ribeiro had three assists in the 5-1 win at Bell Centre, his first three-assist game since October 15, 2011 with the Dallas Stars against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Game to Forget… March 10th vs. New York Rangers. After a three-game winning streak to start the month of March, during which Ribeiro was 3-3-6, plus-5, the Caps laid an egg on Long Island, losing to the Islanders, 5-2. The Caps were looking to get back on track at home against the Rangers. The Rangers would have none of it, though, and Ribeiro had a forgettable game. In 20:39 of ice time he managed just one shot on goal, lost the only faceoff he took, was sent off for a roughing penalty in the third period, and was on ice for three of the four Ranger goals in a 4-1 Caps loss.
Post Season… The warts that might have been hidden in Ribeiro’s regular season, especially at even strength, came out in the first round series loss to the Rangers. His 20-plus shooting percentage of the regular season did not make itself known in the series, scoring only one goal on 13 shots in the seven-game series (it did happen to be the overtime game-winning goal in Game 5). He had one assist, that coming in a Game 2 win. He happened to be on ice for the last four Ranger goals and then took a ten-minute misconduct in the last four minutes in the 5-0 Game 7 loss. He finished 1-1-2, minus-2 for the series.
In the end…
Was Mike Ribeiro the solution to the second line center problem the Caps have had? That is not an easy question to answer. He was certainly more productive than any second line center the Caps have had in at least a decade. Then again, a lot of that production was obtained on the league’s best power play, he being the trigger man from the goal line extended on the top unit. At even strength his 0.46 points-per-game was not significantly different from Marcus Johansson’s 0.48 even strength points per game in 2011-2012. That unremarkable even strength production became important in the playoffs against the Rangers, and it contributed to the Caps’ demise, the team scoring only nine-even strength goals in the seven-game series.
The question now becomes, “is Mike Ribeiro the answer as the second-line center going forward?” The realities of the salary cap might answer that question for the Caps. There is not much room to do what the club might like to do in re-signing restricted free agents Karl Alzner or Marcus Johansson. The other part of the issue is even if the Caps could afford Ribeiro, who might sign a contract north of the $5.0 million cap hit that is expiring, would it be a value signing given the level of even-strength contribution he made this season? And if not him, then to whom do the Caps turn to solve the perennial problem of who centers the second line?
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America