When the Capitals traded Cody Eakin and a pick to the Stars in exchange for Mike Ribeiro on Friday night, they addressed both their biggest and most persistent personnel need - second-line center. Since the lockout, Ribeiro has averaged 45 assists per season; the Caps haven't had a center not named Nicklas Backstrom hit that mark since Robert Lang did it pre-lockout, and you have to go all the way back to 1995-96 to find a Caps team that had two 40-assist pivots (Michal Pivonka had 65 helpers that year, Joe Juneau fifty).
In Ribeiro, the Caps also addressed the position in the way that an unfortunate reality dictated they had to - with a player who has first-line center upside, a qualification that became critically important when the previously indestructible Backstrom missed half of last season with a concussion and the always-dicey future that goes along with that injury. (Ribeiro has averaged 77 games played per post-lockout campaign.)
Yes, optimism on the second-line center front abounds in D.C.
But how can the Caps maximize Ribeiro's effectiveness? To answer that question, let's take a look at how he's been used over the past five seasons and what's worked and what hasn't. Here are some relevant five-on-five numbers:
|Season||Pts/60||Corsi Rel||Corsi Rel QoC||OZ%||S%ON|
First and foremost, let's hope 2011-12 was an anomaly and not a cliff - Ribeiro got favorable zone starts against decent competition, but had a Corsi that was well on the wrong side of zero, making him the only Stars forward to have a negative relative Corsi and zone starts above 50%. Of course, he'd fit right in with Alex Ovechkin in that respect, and that 2.35 points/60 would fall behind only Keith Aucoin and Mathieu Perreault on the 2011-12 Caps, but that's neither here nor there.
But some things do standout, namely that he's crushed soft minutes - when he faced weaker competition and got favorable zone starts in 2007-08 and 2008-09, he's posted big possession numbers and scoring rates - and had less success when the minutes got tougher (especially in terms of zone starts). That's wholly unsurprising, of course, but it's clear as day. (What's also clear as day is that Dave Tippett - his coach for the first of those two seasons - knows how to deploy his troops to get the most out of them, while Marc Crawford, his coach for the following two campaigns... maybe not so much). He's also done some of his best work when aligned with heavy-volume shooters (though it's worth noting that shooters like Michael Ryder and James Neal have done better when apart from Ribeiro, perhaps because they were playing with Brad Richards or Jamie Benn at those times, but there's a lot of noise in the numbers and not a lot of context).
What you're left with is a top-six center who has generally excelled when deployed in favorable situations and with gunners in Ribeiro, and one who has generally excelled when deployed in all situations in Backstrom. It's easy to foresee an Ovechkin-Ribeiro line getting the easiest minutes available and killing them, while Backstrom and whomever he's slotted with shoulder a heavier burden at five-on-five.
More importantly, the Caps have something now that they haven't had in years: options.
Note: RLS has some related thoughts on the subject that are certainly worth your time.