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With the acquisition of Mike Ribeiro in mid June, the Washington Capitals finally plugged a hole in their lineup that they have had since the summer of 2009 – a second prime center.
Ribeiro, 32, is a playmaking pivot who has spent the last six seasons of his career with the Dallas Stars – recording 50 or more points in each and every one of those seasons. He is, without question, the type of player that Washington has lacked for the last three seasons, and he adds a new depth of scoring to a lineup that badly needed some skill following the presumed (at the time of his acquisition) and now actual departure of Alexander Semin via unrestricted free agency.
As always, the dog days of summer have left most with nothing left to ponder, as almost all free agents have been signed and almost all trades have been made. And so, fans and media alike have begun to prognosticate – and many believe that Ribeiro belongs on the second line, and that Nicklas Backstrom should return to his post on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin.
I don’t believe that to be the case, and the reason is simple: Ribeiro playing with Alex Ovechkin could, should, and likely will be better for both players and the entire team.
While in Dallas, Ribiero was a positive puck possession player in all but one year that such statistics have been recorded; that was this past season in which his corsi relative to his teammates was a disconcerting -4.4. Every other year, however, Ribiero had a positive relative corsi (corsi rel), and those four years averaged to 6.73, an admirable number. Of course, we all hope that last season was simply an anomaly - but I digress.
Two years in particular stand out when analyzing Ribeiro's numbers: 2007-08 and 2008-09. Those two seasons, the Quebecois had an average corsi rel of 10.05, easily his best two years – and those came against the weakest relative competition that he faced in that five-year period (combined corsi rel average of -.306 compared to .711 in the other three years). Not surprisingly, those two seasons also produced the two best point totals of his career: 83 and 78 points, respectively (for more in depth analysis on Ribeiro’s last five seasons from Japers Rink, click here).
So what does this tell us about Ribeiro, and how does that tie in to Ovechkin?
First off, it tells us that Ribeiro is a player who thrives on playing softer minutes. This is to be expected of an offensive player of his caliber, but it is undeniable that when Ribeiro saw softer competition on ice, he not only possessed the puck at a superior rate but he also put up points at a level indicative of a #1 NHL center. So why wouldn't you want to give him those easier shifts again?
As just about everyone knows at this point, Ovechkin fell of a cliff last season not only in terms of point production, but also in terms of puck possession. Ovechkin’s corsi rel was an alarming -3.4 last season, a decline of 15.3 from 2010-11. 2011-12 also represented the first season in Ovechkin’s career (since such statistics have been recorded) that he had a corsi rel not in double digits; he averaged a 13.9 in previous years. In addition, those four seasons of dominant puck possession coincided with three triple digit point totals and an 85-point season.
Ovechkin faced weak relative competition last season, 12th best among Capitals forwards, which makes that drop particularly concerning. This is because relatively weak competition is nothing new to Ovechkin – only once in his career (referencing available data) has he faced competition that ranks in the top 50% of Capitals forwards during that particular season. That campaign, 2010-11, was at that point his worst ever season and is still the second-worst in his seven-year career. In other words, when the Great Eight has put up incredible offensive numbers, he’s crushed relatively easy minutes. Just like Ribeiro.
Putting Ovechkin with Ribeiro on a nightly basis will give the Capitals the best chance to maximize their scoring opportunities against softer competition. By slotting his two best pure offensive players, who play best against easier minutes, on the same line, new coach Adam Oates should be able to take advantage of two gifted scorers more easily and specialize his attack. This will lead to more possession of the puck, more shots, and, in theory, more goals.
Not only that, but it will also allow Nicklas Backstrom to make some other players, like Marcus Johansson and Wojtek Wolski, better. Backstrom is at this point the Capitals’ best all around player and has proven, even in Dale Hunter’s anti puck-possession system, that he can control the puck regardless of competition or who he plays with. The Capitals need him to help balance their second (perhaps 1A) line – especially with Johansson, who has been simply dreadful in terms of corsi in his first two seasons, likely being forced to play a top-six role.
Finally, it allows the Capitals to separate their top two players, and makes opposing coaches pick which line they want to key in on – especially at home. Oates has the option of putting his Ovechkin - Ribeiro unit out for an offensive zone faceoff, and then reserving the Backstrom unit for defensive zone starts and combating the other team’s best players, should he choose.
And if opposing coaches choose to key in on Ovechkin’s line with their top shutdown forwards and defensemen, Backstrom and his linemates will be waiting on the next shift to take advantage of weaker players. What's not to love about that?
All of this isn’t to say that Ribeiro will reincarnate the old Alex Ovechkin. I am on record (and no, that’s not groundbreaking) as saying Ovechkin won’t score 50 again, and we have probably seen his last 100-point season because of that. But the Caps’ latest offensive toy has the potential to be a real game changer for the biggest piece of Washington’s 2012-13 puzzle.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.