NHL fans are often forced to wait several years to determine if their team's particular offseason moves have worked out in their favor. Such is not the case with the Washington Capitals' decisions made during the 2013 offseason regarding their second-line center.
The Capitals chose not to re-sign Mike Ribeiro, despite Ribeiro's 21 power-play assists and 27 power-play points ranking first and tied-for-first in the NHL last season, respectively. All told, Ribeiro totaled 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points in 48 games, with a minus-four rating and 53 penalty minutes. The 34-year-old Montreal native signed a four-year, $22 million contract with the Phoenix Coyotes on July 5, according to CBSSports.com.
Instead, the Capitals decided to sign free-agent pivot Mikhail Grabovski, late of the Toronto Maple Leafs, to a one-year deal worth $3 million, according to the team's website. Last season, the 30-year-old Belarusian scored nine goals with seven assists for 16 points in 48 games, to go with a minus-10 rating and 24 penalty minutes.
Based on their respective production from last season, one would think that the Capitals erred in not re-signing Ribeiro, and further erred by taking a flier on Grabovski.
Adding to that observation is the fact that this season Grabovski has only played in 52 of 77 games, finally returning to the Capitals' lineup on March 30 after missing 22 of the previous 23 games, according to Joe Yerdon of Pro Hockey Talk at NBC Sports.
Despite the apparent preponderance of evidence, the Capitals have in fact chosen wisely by first letting Mike Ribeiro walk and then signing Mikhail Grabovski.
The case to support this argument can be presented in three parts.
First, take a look at each player's 2013-14 production on a per-game basis (through March 31):
Grabovski has produced at a slightly better rate than Ribeiro. However, this slim margin becomes more glaring when you consider that last season, Grabovski averaged only 0.33 points per game while Ribeiro averaged more than three times that number at 1.02 points per game.
But a center is expected to do more than just produce. To ensure their team possesses the puck (which in turn ensures production), a center must win faceoffs. Analyzing this crucial statistic helps elucidate the disparity between Grabovski and Ribeiro as a viable second-line center:
|Faceoff Win % *||54.2||1st||42.8||5th|
|% of Team Faceoffs||19.5||2nd||18.7||3rd|
|* Minimum 100 Faceoffs|
Last but not least are the intangibles.
The importance of this aspect became painfully obvious to the Phoenix Coyotes in recent weeks. Phoenix currently has a 36-27-13 record, good for 85 points and the ninth-place position in the Western Conference standings. Unfortunately, this team had to deal with an unwanted distraction while trying to earn valuable points in the standings.
Last week, Ribeiro was healthy scratched for two consecutive games, first on March 25 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and then on March 27 against the New Jersey Devils. Between these two games (both of which resulted in Phoenix victories), Ben Raby of CSNWashington.com quoted Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett on March 26 regarding Ribeiro's absence from the lineup:
We're trying to win right, so it's less about who's not in and more about who's in. We're trying to play a certain way, a competitive way, and we've got to come back with another good effort like we did the other night.
Raby also explained that Tippett's disgust with Ribeiro had been building over time:
Ribeiro...has struggled since the NHL returned from the Olympic break in late February. The 34-year-old, who made a habit of talking back to officials last season with the Capitals, picked up a two-minute unsportsmanlike penalty and a ten-minute game misconduct during the second period of a 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 28. Ribeiro was eligible to return for the third period, but Tippett kept Ribeiro on the bench. 'We have to have everybody on the same page,' Tippett said after the 4-2 loss to Colorado. 'Our margin for error is very slim. Mistakes cost us.'
This type of behavior is not acceptable on any NHL team, especially one that is pushing to make the playoffs. On top of that, Phoenix paid good money to land Ribeiro. I am sure the Coyotes would much rather pay for Ribeiro to be on the ice than for him to be in the penalty box. Or worse still, the owner's box.
Washington has not had these same problems with Grabovski. Yes, he did receive a game-misconduct penalty, for an attempted eye rake of Ottawa Senators forward Zack Smith on Jan. 21. However, Grabovski has not been penalized for dissent towards the referees, and has not been healthy scratched either.
His return to the lineup on March 30 against the Nashville Predators was pretty good, too. Expectations were low, thanks to Adam Oates' comments to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post the morning of the game:
Ease him into it slow and see how he is. It’s been a long time now. We’ll see how -he is and how everybody else is. We played yesterday and [Nashville] didn’t, maybe he’s fresh and flying, maybe he gets more minutes because of that. As the game goes along I’ll kind of monitor it.
Grabovski must have been "fresh and flying" on March 30 against the Nashville Predators, because he finished with 15:49 of ice time to go with an even rating and a faceoff win percentage of 54 percent.
In Washington's next game, on April 1 against the Dallas Stars, Grabovski logged 15:55 of ice time, including 1:04 on the power play. He finished as a minus-one with one shot, one takeaway and a win percentage of 62 in the faceoff circle.
However, the Capitals as a team did not fare as well. In fact, they were dreadful. Washington was blanked by Kari Lehtonen on 35 shots and fell 5-0 at home. The Caps now sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings with a 34-29-13 record and 81 points, with only five games remaining. If the season ended today, Washington's streak of qualifying for the playoffs in consecutive seasons would abruptly end at six.
The Capitals 2013-14 season may be spinning further down the spiral, but at least they did one thing right when they opted against Mike Ribeiro and instead opted for Mikhail Grabovski.
If only Adam Oates would opt against Jay Beagle as his first-line center and instead opt for Grabovski to center the top line with Alex Ovechkin. It might alleviate the Capitals' inability to score goals during five-on-five play, and it may even improve Ovechkin's plus/minus rating in the process.
Alas, even Mikhail Grabovski is not talented enough to make Mike Milbury shut up on that issue.
Note: All statistics updated through April 1 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.