What's the best course of action for this slick centerman? (Clydeorama)
With the April 3rd NHL trading deadline closing fast, the Washington Capitals’ management has a terribly big decision to make: what to do with 33 year-old center Mike Ribeiro. Ribeiro, who was acquired at the draft for Cody Eakin and a second-round pick, has impressed during his first season with the Caps, putting up points at a steady pace and being omnipresent in Washington’s attacks as he enjoys a career year. He’s a big piece of the team, and as such, the debate on what to do with Ribeiro has raged for most of the season. Now, it’s time to make the decision.
First of all, it’s obvious this year that Ribeiro has been the Capitals’ best player in terms of consistent offensive production this season. Let’s get that out of the way right now – he can skate, create, and pass well. Coming in to Washington’s game on Tuesday with the Islanders, Ribeiro’s 34 points lead the Caps – he is three clear of captain Alex Ovechkin. He has been a catalyst for the Capitals offensively and his brilliant passing on the power play has clearly been one of the engines, along with Oates’ great man advantage design to isolate Ovechkin, behind what is the NHL’s best unit while a man to the good. He is tied for the league lead in power play points with Montreal’s Andrei Markov. Trading him would undoubtedly make the team worse in the short-term, and would, in all likelihood, end the Capitals’ playoff hopes for 2013.
However, trading him would have several benefits, all of which are harder to see because they are farther in the future. For one, Ribeiro is now one of, if not the, best players available at the trade deadline; Jarome Iginla is a bigger name, but Ribeiro is having a better year. Not only that, but with other elite potential unrestricted free agents Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry already signed to long-term deals in Anaheim and Florida center Stephen Weiss out for the year, it is a seller’s market. Teams who are ready to win now, who would be potential trade partners with the Caps for Ribeiro, know that they have to pony up to get a good player because of the limited talent available on the market. Brandon Morrow, who has 11 points this season, was moved for a young defenseman on Sunday – so it’s not like the return would be close be nothing.
Another benefit is that it could keep the Capitals from being tempted to put another large, long contract on their salary cap structure on top of those already given to Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, and even John Carlson. This offseason, Ribeiro will be the prime center on the unrestricted free agent market and will be coming off a career year. That means that his price is going to be very inflated, and any team that signs him will need to pony up for at least four years and $22 million. That’s an average annual value of $5.5 million, and that may be on the low end of a possible deal, both in years and term, that it will take to sign the shifty center to a deal.
With the salary cap coming down this offseason, a deal in that range would push Washington’s already dangerously top-heavy cap structure to the brink of disaster. Based on CapGeek’s salary page, as of this writing the Capitals are a little over $15.3 million under next year’s projected cap of $64.3 million. A deal for Ribeiro would almost certainly cut that number to $10 million or less, with new deals still required for Karl Alzner, Michal Neuvirth, Marcus Johansson, Tomas Kundratek, Matt Hendricks, and Eric Fehr - or at least players that could replace these ones both in terms of a lineup spot and production for the Capitals to remain somewhat competitive.
But even if Ribeiro were to be re-signed, would he really help the Caps remain that competitive, at least to a level that would come close to justifying his cap hit? At first glance, probably not. For one, the only other year that he has exceeded a point per game pace, 2007-08, was a contract year, like this one. Sure, he’s had some great years in which he has scored 70 or more points – but not at the level he is now. Plus, Ribeiro is 33 years old – on the back nine of his career, and is seemingly very unlikely to do this ever again because of his age and the fact that NHL players’ scoring declines with age.
What’s more, Ribeiro is shooting at 27% this year, well above the league average of around 10% and his career average of 14.8%. Yes, a majority of his work is done on passes, but he still has ten goals this year, five of which have come on the man advantage, and being able to score is an important part of any player. This is likely the best excellent year of Ribeiro’s career, and by the time a deal that would be able to keep him in DC expired, he would almost certainly be significantly below this current level of production.
With all of these things considered, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Capitals “win” unless they make the decision to move Ribeiro for a package that includes a first-round pick and a prospect, perhaps even more. Trading him for anything less would both take the Capitals out of the playoff hunt and not give them good return to help build for the future and try to become a strong contender in years to come. If they keep him and do not achieve their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, and then he walks, they lose their most tradable asset for nothing – the worst possible outcome. And if they keep him, they do not achieve their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, and then sign him to a big deal to keep him in DC, they hurt their cap structure, hinder their ability to sign their younger players to contracts and add pieces via free agency when Evgeny Kuznetsov, Flip Forsberg, and others arrive in the NHL.
The Capitals should not dump Mike Ribeiro, but they should do everything in their power to trade him for something that will help to make them contenders in the future, because they are not contenders now, as thrilling and inspiring as their recent run has been. Even if they make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, they do not have a realistic chance to win it all, with or without him. Plus, the trading of Ribeiro would potentially get the Capitals a very nice draft pick and either Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin, or Aleksander Barkov, which is probably better for the long-term winning chances of this team. Wouldn’t they look great with the Capitals at the start of the 2014-15 season with Forsberg and Kuznetsov, even better than Ribeiro would?
My money is on yes. What’s your money on?
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.