Ribs salutes the fans after his overtime goal in game five. (Photo credit: Patrick McDermott)
The Washington Capitals have been searching for a second-line center for years. Last summer, they finally got one. In a shortened season with the Caps, Mike Ribeiro was excellent — even when his team wasn’t. He anchored Washington’s power play, turning Alex Ovechkin — a guy the Caps have invested $123 million in — into a lethal threat. He stabilized the top six. He led the league in points on the man advantage, a huge source of the team’s scoring. He will soon be a free agent. The captain wants him back, though, and so does the coach.
“The most important thing is to re-sign Ribs,” Ovechkin told Slava Malamud. “It will be tough without him.”
“You all saw how valuable he was to our team,” Adam Oates added. “Hopefully the parties will work it out because we love him.”
After Ovi heaped praise on Ribs for his work this season, I asked Ribeiro what he learned by playing with the Russian. Seeing clips of him on NHL Network, of course, is different from sending him a cross-ice pass on the power play. Until this season, Ovechkin never depended on teammates. Instead, he’d take the puck into the offensive zone and try to create the play by himself. As we saw the last two years, that stopped working. Oates got him to change that, but in March Ovechkin demanded Ribeiro give him the puck in the neutral zone. Though Ovechkin is superstar, Ribs said no. By the end of the season, Ovechkin was a Hart Trophy finalist.
“He’s still a young player who has a lot to learn about the game and how to play it,” Ribeiro told me of Ovi. “He’s a powerful player.”
“His English was better than when I saw him on TV,” he continued. “Sometimes I was like ‘What is he saying?’ I used to be like that. Guys used to laugh at me the way I speak.”
Losing Ribs would be a difficult loss for the franchise, but it may be a necessary one. The team only has about $5.6 million in cap room for next season. While they could probably get Ribeiro for that, they’d have to shake up the roster a little or consider not re-signing RFAs Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson. Considering Ribeiro is 33 and wants a four- or five-year deal, that’s a tough sell. (Ribeiro, for what it’s worth, said he “can only get better.”)
“It’s important to be hard on the merits and soft on the people and do it right,” Caps GM George McPhee said, before adding that he doesn’t talk about specific negotiations.
Still, Ribeiro reiterated that he likes the area and is hesitant to move his family again. He also wants to win. Until two weeks ago, he had missed the postseason in five straight years. That may have been justification to get the heck out of DC in February, but now it’s a reason to stay.
“Once you make the playoffs, you want to go back,” he said. “You see the potential that we have here.”
“I don’t want to be selfish by signing too much and not being able to get other guys here or re-sign guys here,” Ribeiro added. “If I stay here I want to have a chance to win. … You cannot just re-sign me and have the same kind of team. You want to improve your team.”
Soon, the Caps and Ribeiro will have to make their choices. On July 5, the center is no longer the team’s property. From the coaches to the media, everyone at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Wednesday morning knew they may be seeing him for the final time. Then, Ribeiro emerged. He strode to the podium outside the Capitals locker room wearing a fedora, a diamond earning, and a large chain. A reporter asked him about his opulent look.
“I’m allowed to do what I want to do now,” he quipped.
We’ll see if that includes staying in Washington.