There has been much debate about whether the Capitals should sign center Mike Ribeiro to a long-term contract or if he should be traded at the trade deadline. At 33 years old, Mike Ribeiro would be 38 at the end of a 5-year contract, which is his stated desire. There is little debate about how good Ribeiro has been this season for the Capitals, sitting 17th in NHL scoring with 35 points in 35 games. He has been instrumental to the Capitals staying in the playoff chase; he truly has been the productive, veteran #2 center the Capitals have needed since Sergei Fedorov left in 2009, and players like him don’t come around too often, which means the Capitals should try to hold on to him.
Most people don’t seem to be worried about the first 2-3 years of a potential Ribeiro contract and seem fairly confident that George McPhee’s initial contract offer of 3 years and $14 million was a fair deal and safe for the Capitals, even if a no-movement clause was included. Ribeiro has averaged 20 goals and 65 points per year over the last 8 seasons on two different teams and has continued that high production on a third team. People are concerned that by the 4th or 5th year of such a contract that Ribeiro will not be performing at the same level he is now and won’t be worth the $5 million a season he is likely to be making. The reason: most players experience a decline in performance when they reach their late 30s, if they are still playing at all, and such a big contract for a diminished player may hurt the Capitals' salary cap structure. If people are sure that Ribeiro will be good for 3 years, why is it so harmful to give him a fourth and fifth year? How far does his performance have to drop for a $5 million contract to not be worth it? As long as Ribeiro does not have a no-movement clause after year 3, his contract isn’t nearly as risky as it may seem on the surface. It also may be worth paying market value for three years for a couple of overpaid seasons, though McPhee can mitigate the risk and structure the contract to pay him less money after year 3. After all, Sergei Fedorov was pushing 40 when the Capitals acquired him, much like Igor Larionov and Ron Francis were elder statesmen when they met in the 2002 Stanley Cup Final. It may be useful to see some recent examples of what players like Ribeiro have accomplished in their late 30s.
Ribeiro has scored 20 goals in a season a few times but has never reached 30, and rare is the season when he doesn’t have twice as many assists as goals. Beginning with the 2003-04 season, which ended when Ribeiro was 24.1 years old, Ribeiro has been a consistent producer at even strength and on the powerplay. This season Ribeiro is producing at just under his career average for points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time. His powerplay production is off-the-charts good, two and a half standard deviations above his career average, and he surpassed last season’s powerplay production in half the time.
There have only been two seasons in which Ribeiro did not maintain a scoring average of at least 2.18 points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time: the first season after the 2005 lockout and the 2009-10 season when he missed 15 games after nearly being killed by a puck to the throat. Both of those seasons he dropped down to around 1.6 P/60, and both times his goal scoring took the hit. Where Mike Ribeiro has done most of his damage in his career is with the extra man. He is a powerplay wizard, averaging nearly 5 points per 60 minutes of powerplay time, and has made a world of difference for the Caps top unit this season.
To get an idea of what Ribeiro might do in his late 30s, it is helpful to look at comparable players. Pass-first scoring centers with production as consistent as Ribeiro's are pretty easy to spot since there aren’t too many of them. For this discussion, Saku Koivu, Brendan Morrison, and Michael Nylander were chosen because of they are post-lockout players and because of the availability of time-on-ice statistics. Adam Oates was another potential candidate, but his earlier career time-on-ice statistics are unavailable. The statistics presented are for the 9 seasons at the ages that most closely match Ribeiro’s age over his last 9 seasons, plus the next 5 seasons that ended with the other centers older than Ribeiro is now.
First up is Ribeiro’s former Montreal teammate, Saku Koivu. Koivu, 38, is currently plying his trade with the Anaheim Ducks as the second-line center skating alongside future Hall-of-Famer Teemu Selanne. He has seen mostly second unit powerplay time in his Southern California stay after being the #1 center in Montreal for over a decade. He is an especially relevant example because he and Ribeiro played on the same team for two seasons during Ribeiro’s prime and he continued to produce even on a new team late in his career. Koivu had a lost season in 2001-02 as he dealt with stomach cancer (illness, not injury), so that season is not included in his yearly averages or for standard deviation purposes. In his career so far, he has played 1,028 games and has recorded 244 goals and 555 assists.
In his prime, Koivu only produced one bad season, in 1998-99. He often dealt with injuries which affected his even-strength production to some degree, but his powerplay production was consistently good and usually great. Like Ribeiro this season, he had an amazingly good year on the powerplay around age 32, two and a half standard deviations above average.
The numbers show that Koivu’s production at even strength was been up and down in his 5 seasons after age 33, but was nothing horrid. He had one bad season in terms of powerplay production but has otherwise been pretty consistent with his career averages. He has been more or less the same player in terms of offensive production that he was earlier in his career for three of 5 seasons, and was slightly below for two more.
Ok, so what? How will this work out on the Capitals? For more information on that it helps to look at the last two pass-first centers to play for them, Brendan Morrison and Michael Nylander.
Brendan Morrison, another former teammate of Mike Ribeiro, leans a bit more toward goal scoring than the other centers in this discussion, but he was still primarily a pass-first playmaker who centered scoring lines pretty consistently from the late 1990s through last season. He was an NHL iron man for most of his career, playing 542 straight games, ending in the 2007-08 because of a wrist injury that eventually required surgery. Right after he returned to the lineup in the spring, he suffered a torn ACL that affected him for the entire 2008-09 season. Beginning in 2009-10, he returned to health and centered scoring lines for two and a half more seasons, including future Hall-of-Famer Jarome Iginla’s line in Calgary, before he was traded to Chicago to be a depth center for a playoff run (and those stats are not included). For his career, Morrison totaled 200 goals and 401 assists in 934 games, and, like Ribeiro and Koivu, had a big powerplay season right before he turned 33 when his production was almost two standard deviations above his career average.
In the four seasons he played after age 33, he was only healthy for two of them. In those two seasons, he managed to produce right at his career average for even strength production and within a standard deviation of his career average for powerplay production. To be sure, Morrison was reliant on his physical prime more than any of the other three players listed here, as his best seasons clearly came in his mid-to-late 20s, but he was still able to be an effective crafty playmaker into his mid-to-late 30s.
Morrison’s “bad” seasons came when he was dealing with recovering from knee surgeries (08-09 and 11-12). His even strength assists per 60 minutes dropped to half of his career average even as his goals per 60 rose above his career average, so he was still able to be useful on the ice even when playing through injury. Even in his worst seasons, he managed to produce no less than 1.54 points per 60 minutes at even strength. His powerplay production was only more than one standard deviation below his career average in 2008-09. That season he was stuck behind Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim for powerplay time, and once he left there, he struggled to crack a deep powerplay lineup that included centers Mike Modano and Ribeiro after the Stars acquired him to fill the void left by Brad Richards.
Last but not least, Michael Nylander was the last veteran playmaking center the Capitals signed to a long-term deal. This deal wouldn’t have been so bad for the Caps if not for the no-movement clause, but he wanted that clause for the same reason Ribeiro would want one: he has lots of kids. His NHL career spanned from 1992-2009 and he produced 209 goals and 470 assists in 920 games with 6 teams, including the Washington Capitals. Nylander’s stats for the same time in his career are harder to compute because time-on-ice wasn’t tracked before 1997-98. That is mitigated somewhat by Nylander playing in Switzerland in 1996-97, but Nylander also had a nice season in 1995-96 that would have fit into this data set if his time-on-ice numbers were available. Additionally, the season most comparable to Ribeiro’s current season would have been the locked out 2004-05 season. Nonetheless, Nylander is a valid and very important comparable player.
Michael Nylander’s career was pocked with injuries and other issues, including missing 63 games in 2003-04 with a broken leg and half the 2007-08 season with a shoulder injury that he played with for several games before having surgery. When he played a full season, he averaged 18 goals and 55 points over his entire career. Over the next three seasons when Nylander was older than Ribeiro is now, he played very well. His two seasons in New York were the best of his career, not least because he was playing with a Hall of Fame-caliber right winger in Jaromir Jagr. His first season in Washington was also productive, even if he missed half of it with an injury. His even-strength assist production was down a bit, but his powerplay production was the highest of his career. His second season in Washington was a disaster at even strength, though, as Nylander was mostly shunted to the third line behind Sergei Fedorov. Even so, his production was no worse than his worst season in 1998-99, and right at that 1.6 points per 60 minutes that seems to be the low point for playmakers like him. His powerplay production dropped from the previous season, but was right about his career average. He was healthy for the 2009-10 season, but he was waived and sent to the minors as the Capitals had moved on. In fact, Michael Nylander has played pro hockey every season since 2008-09, including this season, so his health was not the issue in him ending his NHL career.
The fact remains, Nylander continued to be a productive center after age 33 for three seasons, and he was at least a good player in year 4, but was not given the chance to play a bigger role. There is no reason to think Ribeiro couldn't be at least that good.
What broad generalizations can we make about what to expect from Mike Ribeiro? Even if he stays healthy, his production is likely to tail off gradually at even strength from his prime years as his body ages, but his powerplay production should remain unaffected because his hands and vision will be unaffected. All four of these comparable centers had drops in production associated with injuries, not uncommon for aging hockey players. Even if he has to deal with an injury, Ribeiro’s even strength production isn’t likely to drop below his worst seasons so far, which would make him just good instead of very good, as all of these seem to have level of production they do not drop below, and that’s about 1.6 points per 60 minutes. This is because Ribeiro, like these other centers, does not need his production to come from his physical prime like a power forward might. Ribeiro’s special talent in the NHL is his ability to handle the puck and see the ice, the same traits that served Wayne Gretzky and Adam Oates well late into their 30s. Even if he stays healthy, he will almost certainly have another down year in year 3 or 4 of the contract, mostly because everyone has an off year once in a while. If he doesn’t retire after four seasons, he should still be a relatively productive center in year 5, making the risk to the Capitals a lot lower than many people believe.