In the days leading up the April 3 NHL trade deadline, contract negotiations between the Capitals and Mike Ribeiro broke off after the 33-year-old center turned down a three-year offer that would have paid him $4.66 million a year.
Six weeks and a first-round playoff exit later, the two sides are expected to return to the bargaining table to determine whether Ribeiro will remain in Washington or hit the open market on July 5 as one of the NHL’s most productive unrestricted free agents.
“It’s always a delicate process whenever you’re negotiating,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “It’s important to be hard on merits and soft on the people and do it right.
“But I’ve never really discussed contract negotiations. Like I’ve said a hundred times it never helps the process. We’ll get to work on it and see what develops.”
Ribeiro finished second on the Capitals and 10th in the NHL with 49 points in 48 games. Six of his 13 goals came on the power play, where he led the NHL in power-play assists  and finished in a first-place tie with Alex Ovechkin with 27 power-play points. In seven playoff games Ribeiro had one goal – the overtime winner in Game 5 – and one assist and was a minus-2. He was a minus-4 in the regular season.
“I thought he played really well for us this season and really played his guts out in the playoffs,” McPhee said. “He was really good.”
Capitals coach Adam Oates was asked the importance of having a quality second-line center in the lineup next season.
“It’s huge,” Oates said. “You saw how valuable he was to our team. Hopefully, the parties will work it out, because we love him.”
Ribeiro said he expects both sides to sort things out over the next few weeks, then resume contract talks.
The Caps have about $58.6 million committed to next season’s payroll. And with a hard salary cap of $64.3 million that leaves them with roughly $5.7 million in cap space – not much when you consider the team needs to re-sign restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson and needs to make a decision on unrestricted free-agent grinder Matt Hendricks.
Ribeiro seemed to suggest on Wednesday that he would accept a lower cap hit for a longer term, saying he wanted a contract of four or five years. But if the open market for Ribeiro is upwards of $5 million a season, what would it take for the Caps to re-sign him?
“If I can stay in a city and retire here,” said Ribeiro, who lives in McLean with his wife and three school-age children. “It’s more about the kids. I don’t want to move them too many times. They’re going to high school now. I could stay here until they go to college. “That’s my focus. Four or five years. I still believe I can get better. I don’t see myself getting worse. I can only get better. I can compete out there. I can work out more. There’s a lot of room there to improve.”
Even if Ribeiro is willing to settle for $4.5 million a year over four years, a contract that would expire when he;s 36, the Caps would need to shave salary to make room for him. Only players making $3 million or more a season are eligible under the NHL’s new amnesty rules. That means Martin Erat’s $4.5 million cap hit for each of the next two seasons qualifies and would clear enough space for Ribeiro.
If not, the Caps could try to trade defenseman Jeff Schultz, who has one year remaining on a contract that pays him $2.75 million, or send goaltender Michael Neuvirth [$2.5 million] to another team.
If the Caps choose to let Ribeiro walk, they likely would turn to Brooks Laich as their second-line center. In the nine games he was healthy, Laich played left wing on a second line with Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.
Brouwer said every team has a star center and a star goal scorer, but few have a second-line center with Ribeiro’s skill set.
“It’s that second-line center and supporting cast that really makes a team stand out,” he said. “So if we are able to retain Ribs next year -- which I really hope we do, I hope it works out for both parties – then you have that dangerous second-line center so you can throw Nicky [Backstrom] and Ribs one-two and have top-notch players for other teams to deal with.
“He brings a lot of age, a lot of experience to this team. He was hungry this year to be back in the playoffs. Talking to him, I know he said he likes where the team is right now and where the team is going, His family likes it here, which a big part of it. We need to solidify that second-line center. Hopefully, it’s with him. Or we need to bring up a young guy or find somebody to fill that because it’s one of the hardest positions to fill.”