The summer for the Washington Capitals seemed filled with uncertainty. The Caps had just finished a disappointing regular season that saw them struggle for long stretches because of their inability to score, even though their hot-shot winger still finished in the top 10 in goals. This meant they had to chase down a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season, a contrast to previous years when it had been a certainty well in advance. The team's struggles cost their coach his job, a coach who had made the playoffs every season since coming in as a mid-season replacement a few years before. A new coach was hired over the summer, someone the general manager was familiar with, someone who was cerebral and would install a new two-way system, but who had never won a Stanley Cup. To that end, Tim Hunter was brought on as an assistant to lend the experience of having won a Stanley Cup to the coaching staff.
The team's #1 center for the past several seasons who had shown so much chemistry with the All-Star scoring winger was coming off a disappointing season marred by injuries. That scoring winger, a player who led the league in goals just a few seasons before, saw his per-game goal average drop by about 0.2 goals per game from his league-leading season while trying different linemates. His good friend and, some said, more talented fellow scoring winger had left the team recently, though his enigmatic nature and declining production left many to wonder if the team wasn't better off without him, even as he posted good scoring totals with his new team. Fortunately, things were looking up, as the team was bringing in a new center with a history of production.
At first glance, this center wasn't much to look at. Small and slight in nature, he wasn't the most gifted of skaters, either. A career 14% shooter, he didn't shoot enough and never seemed to get much beyond 20 goals in a season and one third of his production came from the powerplay. But he could pass with the best of them. Over the past 8 seasons, he was in the first breath of playmaking centers in the NHL. With a cloudy contract situation, this new Capital center was certainly going to be due a hefty raise and was no safe bet to stick around. Already a few years into his 30s, he had been acquired for a young center many Capitals pundits were predicting to be a big scorer in years to come if given a real chance at ice time and a scoring line role. Early in the new season, that young center was right at the top of his new team's scoring picture, too.
Photo: Washington Post
All the uncertainty led many to question whether the trade for Adam Oates was worth it at the time, especially as the 1996-97 Caps missed the playoffs by two points and Jason Allison scored 33 goals and 83 points in his first season with the Bruins. If the Caps had been looking up in the standings at any point in the 1997-98 season, some probably would have suggested trading Oates for young prospects at the deadline, too, maybe give the Caps a chance to rebuild. An Oates trade was certainly a possibility as the Capitals struggled in 1998-99, especially as he was struggling through an abdominal injury. In the end, Oates stayed on to be a productive #1 center for an Eastern Conference Championship and two Southeast Division championships, not to mention leading the NHL in assists twice before leaving DC, even if he did renegotiate his contract over his first summer in DC to make more money.
The Capitals face a similar situation now. While Oates is now the head coach instead of Ron Wilson, and while he was certainly a more productive player than Mike Ribeiro was, the parallels are worth noting. Oates was #2 in the NHL in assists over the 8 years before he came to DC; Ribeiro is #10, #7 among centers. Both are small, pass-first players who don't take a lot of penalties and are known for running their mouths at times. And both players are looking for a raise in their first summer after coming to DC.
As for the product on the ice, like Oates playing with Caps' sniper Peter Bondra, Mike Ribeiro playing on the top line seems to be paying off. Michal Pivonka was the playmaking machine for Bondra during his remarkable run from 1994-96 when Bonzai posted 86 goals in 114 games. Pivo's injury-marred campaign in 1996-97 meant the Caps needed a new center to play with Bondra, just like the Caps needed a new center for Alexander Ovechkin now. Nicklas Backstrom seems to be back on track health-wise, but he is paying dividends on a second line away from Ovechkin right now, too. The only question seems to be whether the Caps will be able to re-sign Ribeiro beyond this season.
The Capitals finally have the playmaking pivot they've been needing to get them to the next level. Like Oates, Ribeiro has playoff experience, going as deep as the conference final in 2008 with Dallas. He has been a consistent producer for the past 8 years, averaging 20 goals and 45 assists per season over that span. There is no reason to think that, at age 32, he'll slow down now. After all, Oates came in at age 34 and when Jason Allison was 23 and Allison only outscored him 444-424 over the remainders of their careers. Who's to say 32-year old Riberio doesn't outscore 21-year old Cody Eakin over the remainders of their careers, even if Eakin was leading the Dallas Stars in scoring until this weekend.
In fact, Ribeiro's trade to Washington seems to have been the best thing to happen to either of them. The 2007-08 season was the only time Ribeiro finished over a point per game (83 points in 76 games), and he is well ahead of that pace right now. Ribeiro sits 12th in the NHL scoring race right now with 24 points in 20 games, but he is an even more impressive 6th with 17 assists and 5th with a 26% shooting percentage. Maybe most importantly, he has jump-started a dormant powerplay that went from 18th in the NHL last season to 4th, and Ribeiro is sitting pretty at #2 in the league with 13 powerplay points. That kind of production was one of the lone bright spots as the Capitals struggled out of the gate this season. Even if they couldn't prevent goals, they were able to light the lamp at the other end, and Ribeiro was the reason why.
In short, he is just what the doctor ordered, a true #2 center who can help the Capitals compete for a championship. Nearly every team that has won a Stanley Cup in the modern era has had at least two centers who can legitimately be #1 centers on good teams, usually because they have been #1 centers on other teams. This kind of scoring depth is essential in the defense-heavy Stanley Cup playoffs when one scoring line is often shut down or limited for any length of time. The suggestion of trading away such a key piece to the puzzle right after getting him is puzzling, to say the least, especially as Ribeiro is making people forget about Alexander Semin, just as Oates made people forget about Dmitri Khristich.
The Capitals have struggled in the playoffs the past few seasons precisely because of their lack of a true #2 center. The 2007-08 season can be considered something of a mulligan because it was their first trip to the playoffs in a few years. A rookie Nicklas Backstrom and an aging Sergei Fedorov were no match on paper for the loaded Philadelphia Flyers featuring Mike Richards, Danny Briere, and Jeff Carter, though forcing an overtime in Game 7 shows how close they were. The next season saw the same Caps centers take a first-round series against a weak Rangers team but fall in Game 7 of round two to a Penguins team featuring three legitimate centers in Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal. The Montreal Canadiens were initially no match in 2009-10, as the Caps featuring Nicklas Backstrom and Brendan Morrison were prepared to run roughshod over Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec, but Backstrom blew his shoulder after scoring his hat trick and Morrison was scratched for two games, leaving the Capitals' offense rudderless for the final three games. The 2011 season was an improvement with Jason Arnott taking the reins at the #2 center slot for much of the first round victory against New York, but a nagging injury in round two meant he was a non-factor against Tampa Bay. Last season saw the Caps somehow put Brooks Laich and Nicklas Backstrom up against Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, the reigning Stanley Cup winners, and still win the series in 7. The New York Rangers, much stronger up the middle with Brad Richards and Derek Stepan, proved to be too much for the Caps.
The common factor for the Capitals in all these series has been that Nicklas Backstrom alone isn't enough to get deep into the playoffs, and if he's hurt there isn't much hope at all without a true #2 center. Mike Ribeiro is the answer to this predicament. Much like Ron Francis taking over for an injured Mario Lemieux in the 1992 playoffs, Ribeiro can be the player to get the Capitals deep. After all, he was the Stars' leading scorer in their 2007-08 Conference Final run, his 17 points out-pacing Mike Richards (15) and Mike Modano (12).
Just as Adam Oates was the answer for the Washington Capitals to make a deep playoff run in 1997-98, Mike Ribeiro will be the answer for the Caps to get deep into the playoffs. It may not happen this year, but if the Washington Capitals can keep their core of players together (and get them all healthy at the same time), they'll be a fearsome team to contend with come playoff time. The Caps may not win a championship with Ribeiro, but they definitely won't win one without him. George McPhee finally ponied up the return to get a player who can take the team deep, there is no sense discarding him now for more youth.