For three seasons from 2009-10 through 2011-12, the Washington Capitals auditioned all types for the role of second-line center, with mixed and largely insufficient results. It wasn’t until this lockout-shortened year that they finally found a solution to the persistent need for another elite playmaker in the form of Mike Ribeiro.
Ribeiro brought the skilled veteran presence the Capitals long sought behind Nicklas Backstrom on the depth chart. He finished the regular season second on the team in scoring (49 points) behind only Alex Ovechkin and helped run the league’s best power-play unit. In the playoffs, Ribeiro recorded a goal and an assist but the lone tally was an overtime winner in Game 5.
Regardless how well his skillset fit, it’s unclear whether Ribeiro and his contract demands mesh with the organization’s long-term plans and if the impending unrestricted free agent will re-sign with Washington.
Ribeiro, 33, reiterated last week that his new contract “has to be four or five years” in order to provide stability for his wife and three school-age children. The term request alone could be a deal-breaker given that he would be 37 or 38 when it expired.
“If I can stay in the city and retire here, it’s more about the kids. I don’t want to move them too many times. School – they’re going into high school now, so if I can stay here until they go to college, or stay in the city until they go to college, that’s my focus,” Ribeiro said. “I still believe I can get better. I don’t see myself getting worse. It can only get better. I can be out there. I can work out more. There’s a lot of room there to improve and that’s why I don’t think I should have less than four or five years.”
Ribeiro earned $5 million this season and he could easily command the same annual amount on the free agent market, where he would be one of the few elite forwards available. Even if Ribeiro would accept a lower salary, the Capitals would need to get creative to clear salary cap space and make room for him.
Washington has just more than $58 million committed to 19 players for next season, according to Capgeek.com. That leaves roughly $6.2 million in space under the $64.3 million salary cap to re-sign restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson, in addition to any unrestricted free agent signings.
Any combination of trades, compliance and standard buyouts could be used to shed salary and accommodate a Ribeiro return, though, should the Capitals want to bring him back. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are permitted to make two compliance buyouts over the next two years that will not result in any cap hit. All players are eligible for a compliance buyout, there is no salary threshold requirement.
There’s little question Ribeiro would be an asset in the short term. If he doesn’t return next season and the Capitals don’t acquire someone else to bolster depth down the middle, the team will likely go back to second-line center roulette with a combination of Brooks Laich, Johansson and Mathieu Perreault none of whom are as well suited to the position as Ribeiro is.
But could another candidate for the position not far off? General Manager George McPhee has said the Capitals want top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov to play center and if the young forward comes to the NHL after his KHL contract expires as expected — which likely won’t be until the start of the 2014-15 season — he might be that long-term solution rather than an aging Ribeiro.
As the Capitals should be well aware, finding the right player to fill that second line center position is no easy feat. One way or another the team’s decision with Ribeiro will weigh heavily on how the rest of the roster shakes out this summer and perhaps years to come.
“Every team has a star first-line centermen. Every team has a goal scorer. It’s that second-line center and that supporting cast that is what really makes teams stand out,” said Troy Brouwer, who spent much of the season skating on a line with Ribeiro. “We need to solidify that second-line center. Hopefully it’s with Ribs, or we need to bring up a young guy or find somebody that can fill that because it’s one of the hardest positions to fill.”