Reporting David Elfin
When the Caps finally tired last spring of Russian left wing Alexander Semin’s inconsistent scoring, lackluster defense, and refusal to speak English after seven seasons in Washington, they knew they had better add some creativity to their reduced arsenal.
At the same time, center Mike Ribeiro was frustrated in Dallas where the Stars, a Western Conference semifinalist in 2008, had missed the playoffs four years running.
So out went Semin as a free agent and in came Ribeiro in a trade for never-was forward Cody Eakin and a second-round draft pick.
Ribeiro, who turns 33 next month, is four years older than Semin, but he’s much more reliable. Ribeiro only ranked 47th among the top 100 active scorers last season but only 11 joined him in having reached the 50-point plateau in eight straight years.
“He’s a really good playmaking center,” said Caps general manager George McPhee of the 6-foot, 177-pound Ribeiro. “He’s good 5-on-5. He’s good on the power play.”
Forward Brooks Laich believes that Ribeiro will be a boon for Washington’s extra-man unit despite his scrawny frame.
“Mike will be great for us,” Laich said. “He will take some of the pressure off of [top center Nicklas Backstrom]. Now we can work two really good power play units. We’ve never really had a quarterback on a ‘second’ unit. He ran the first unit in Dallas. He controls the puck. He’s not a real physical guy, but … he’s very intelligent. I’m really looking forward to playing with him.”
Caps center Jay Beagle is looking forward to not facing Ribeiro.
“Mike’s obviously got so much skill, you want to be physical with him, try to hit him a lot, get him to shy away from the puck, but it doesn’t happen,” Beagle said. ”The guy is so hard to hit, so slippery with the puck. He’s a great addition. He’s going to be fun to watch. He’s a great guy in the locker room and fun to talk to.”
That might have been an indirect dig at Semin, but there’s no doubt that Ribeiro is thrilled to be centering Washington’s second line between fellow newcomer Wojtek Wolski and Troy Bouwer.
“I’m looking at this as a fresh start,” said Ribeiro, who moved here in August to get his children set for school. “The last couple of years were tough. I was ready to move on. I want to get better on faceoffs and defensively, but at the end of the day, my game is about creating offensively, dishing the puck to my teammates.”
Trading for a veteran center has worked before for the Caps. Washington acquired Sergei Fedorov from Columbus at the 2008 trade deadline. The 38-year-old helped the Caps clinch their first playoffs berth in four years. The next spring, Fedorov’s goal gave Washington its first postseason series triumph since 1998.
One of the key performers during that 1998 run to the Stanley Cup finals was 35-year-old center Adam Oates, who had been acquired from Boston at the 1997 deadline. Named captain in 1999, Oates led the NHL in assists in 2001 and 2002.
Oates is now Washington’s rookie coach. Asked if Ribeiro reminds him of himself, Oates called the Montreal native a “very crafty” player who likes to make his wingers better.
Sounds like the man with whom supreme sniper Brett Hull fired home 212 of his 741 career goals in less than three full seasons together. And Ribeiro also has a little Wayne Gretzky in him.
“I like to work behind the net,” Ribeiro explained. “It’s harder for the goalie and the defense to figure out what you’re going to do and it gives me time and space to figure out the weakness of the other team. If I’m smart defensively, it’s going to happen offensively with the guys we have on our power play.”
Given that the Caps’ power play ranked just 19th last year and Alex Ovechkin is their only player who scored more than Semin’s 21 goals, the craftiness of Oates and Ribeiro is much-needed.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin