Analyzing the options: Caps star center Mike Ribeiro

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

So you want to be an NHL general manager? The problem Capitals GM George McPhee faces this week with veteran center Mike Ribeiro might make you rethink that one. Let’s break down the issues as Washington decides whether to sign Ribeiro now, trade him before the April 3 deadline, allow him to test the open market starting July 5, trade his rights in late June for a smaller return or let him walk and allocate that $5 million in salary-cap space elsewhere.

1. What does Ribeiro want?

After the morning skate prior to Sunday’s game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, Ribeiro told the Post and the Times what he’s seeking: A “long-term” contract, which by his definition means at least four years. He is also in the midst of a fine offensive season with 11 goals and 24 assists in 33 games. He is an exceptionally skilled player and has helped turn the Caps’ power play lethal again. Now in the final year of a five-year, $25 million contract that he originally signed with the Dallas Stars, Ribeiro can rightly expect a raise.

It took years for McPhee to add another top-notch center to go with Nicklas Backstrom. They are among the game’s toughest commodities to acquire.  Now McPhee and salary-cap guru Don Fishman have to judge the open market. What can Ribeiro get? The NHL salary cap will see a steep drop to $64.3 million in 2013-14. Nine current teams are expected to jump that mark by the end of the current season, when the cap has been inflated to a pro-rated $70.2 million. But that leaves 21, including Washington, that aren’t. Lots of teams will be interested in Ribeiro. And while not all can fit him onto their roster, enough could.

Ribeiro will be 34 on Feb. 10, 2014. Is McPhee comfortable handing out a four-year contract extension, let alone five? He has shown no fear offering long-term deals to young players like Backstrom (10 years) or Alex Ovechkin (13 years) or John Carlson (six years). Even Brooks Laich earned six years at age 28. But…

2. How much will you pay to a plus-30 player?

That’s a different scenario. Defenseman Tom Poti (four years $14 million) was 30 when he got a long-term deal from the Caps. He was a steady presence on the blueline during that time and it worked out for all parties. It was Poti’s next extension (two years, $5.75 million) at age 33 that has been a disaster. He was hurt before it even started when a groin injury and pelvic fracture ended his 2010-11 season and he missed all of last year, too, before making a surprise comeback this January. Forward Joel Ward (four years, $12 million) was 30 before the 2011-12 season and shook off a disappointing start to become a reliable presence on the third line – but at a cost of $3 million per year.

Forward Michael Nylander (four years, $19.5 million) was 35 by the start of his four-year deal in 2007 and suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder that ended his first campaign after just 40 games. Nylander then managed just 33 points in 72 games during his second season and was buried in the minors for his third season, eventually agreeing to a loan to the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids so he could at least play hockey. Washington loaned Nylander to AHL Rochester for the final year of his contract and he broke his neck in his seventh game with that club. That ended his career in North America and one of the least productive contracts in franchise history.

Given that sordid history, it’s hard to imagine the Caps conceding to a five-year deal that would pay Ribeiro at least $5 million until his age 37/38 season. And I’m not even sure, say, a four-year, $22 million deal ($5.5 cap hit) would work for them. That’s term plus a modest raise.

There’s an added wrinkle now, too. Part of the new collective bargaining agreement allows for compliance buyouts. Teams can clear space by paying a player and taking him off their roster. That leaves a host of uncertainties. If a particular team cuts ties with a well-paid star then it could have plenty of room to add a player like Ribeiro. This summer’s market will be harder to judge because who your competitors will be is less obvious. On the open market $6 million isn’t unthinkable for Ribeiro and agent Don Meehan. It might be from a bad team or a desperate team or both – but if a guy is looking to get paid AND have some security, well…

3. What is Washington’s financial and roster situations in the coming years?

It is likely I would marry the web site CapGeek.com – you know, if it was human. The good folks there give us a reasonable sense of what Washington’s salary commitments are for 2013-14. So let’s take those numbers and then sign UFA forwards Eric Fehr ($1 million) and Matt Hendricks ($1.5 million) and RFA defenseman Karl Alzner ($3 million). RFA forward Marcus Johansson ($1 million), RFA goalie Michal Neuvirth ($1.25 million) and RFA defenseman Tomas Kundratek ($900,000) return under my scenario, too.

You can quibble with what Alzner or Johansson or Neuvirth get this summer – and certainly McPhee could shake things up with a trade or a compliance buyout (Ward? Jeff Schultz?). I can’t remotely imagine they would use a buyout on defenseman Mike Green after making a three-year commitment to him just last summer. He is due $12.5 million over the next two years. But whatever – with this roster I have $7.352 million in cap space left over to add a top-tier center and two extra forwards. Here’s my team:

Laich-Backstrom-Ovechkin           Alzner-Green                Holtby/Neuvirth

Johansson-X-Brouwer                    Orlov-Carlson

Chimera-Perreault-Ward               Erskine-Kundratek-Schultz

Hendricks-Beagle-Fehr

Extra forward-Extra forward

You can argue whether that’s a legitimate Stanley Cup playoff contender or not. I’m sure McPhee’s roster out of training camp next season won’t look exactly like this. But without Ribeiro – if you let him walk – there’s an obvious hole at second-line center. So…

3. Who is Ribeiro’s replacement?

Let’s say Washington bites the bullet this April, makes a last-ditch run at the playoffs with Ribeiro and can’t re-sign him or just lets him go after the season. Who takes his place? The free-agent center list is…um, paltry. Patrik Elias is 36 and it’s hard to imagine him leaving New Jersey after all these years. Anaheim’s Saku Koivu is 38 and not a top-six player at this point in his career. Minnesota’s Matt Cullen (five goals, 17 assists) is 36. Toronto’s Tyler Bozak (nine goals, 11 assists) is in his prime at 27 and centering a star winger in Phil Kessel. But he isn’t exactly a two-way player and the Leafs will probably fight to keep him anyway. Derek Roy (4 goals, 16 assists) is an option from Dallas and only 29  – though he has a checkered injury history, as does St. Louis’ Andy McDonald (3 goals, 10 assists), who is also 35. And none of those players are the offensive force that Ribeiro is right now.

That leaves a trade option. But teams will extract a steep price for anyone approaching a first or second-line center. Let’s say Colorado accepted that Ryan O’Reilly – who finally ended a hold out from the Avalanche on March 1 when they matched an offer sheet he signed with Calgary – and Matt Duchene are its two centers of the future and wanted to shed No. 1 center Paul Stastny’s salary and balance their lines. He’s young at 27, but has a $6.6 million cap hit and is a free agent after the 2013-14 season.

Perfect, right? What would the Avalanche want for a player of that caliber? Likely Washington’s first-round pick in the loaded 2013 draft – possibly a top 10 selection, if not higher – and either an NHL roster player or one of the top prospects listed in the next question. Stastny is a fine player with 53 points or more in five of the six seasons he has stayed healthy. He has topped 70 points three times. But Colorado isn’t just giving him away even if it does have depth at that position.

That was just pulling a name out of hat. Not reporting Washington is even interested in Stastny. But there are other players the Caps could target from teams with either center depth or a top center prospect on the way. The price for anyone under contract for three or more years would be substantial. There’s a reason it took McPhee three years to replace star center Sergei Fedorov, who himself was past his prime when he joined Washington in 2008, though still an effective player.

4. What prospects are in the system?

Obviously, some good ones. Evgeny Kuznetsov might be the best player in the world outside of the NHL right now. He had 19 goals and 25 assists in the KHL at age 20. But he is under contract for another season to Traktor Chelyabinsk and wants the exposure playing back home will give him as Russia puts together its team for next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Does the organization see Kuznetsov as a center? That’s the first evaluation that must be made.

And if it does see him there, can he contribute at a high level as a rookie in 2014-15 or at least before the core group of current players, led by Ovechkin, ages? How confident is the club that Kuznetsov will finally deem himself ready for the NHL? He could actually play in Washington as soon as next March once the Olympics and the KHL season end. Traktor Chelyabinsk was a playoff team this year and if that happens again it could be late in the 2013-14 season before he’d be eligible. If the Caps do expect Kuznetsov at the end of next season – and they still have to sign him to an entry-level deal – then McPhee and his staff could always choose a cheaper option at center for five months and spread that money elsewhere around the roster.

But after Kuznetsov Washington is light on center prospects – and certainly no one who could hope to replace Ribeiro in the short term. The Hockey News’ annual list of the team’s top prospects includes Filip Forseberg, Tom Wilson and Riley Barber – all right wings – and goalie Philipp Grubauer, who has already made his NHL debut and is currently at AHL Hershey.

5. When do the Caps have to decide Ribeiro’s fate?

Timing is the other issue here. Isn’t it always? The trade deadline is April 3. That’s Wednesday. That isn’t much of a window to hammer out an extension, though it’s possible if they are far enough along it could happen. RDS, however, reported Wednesday that Washington’s initial offer was three years, $14 million. That number didn’t come out of thin air. Can the gap between that initial figure and what Ribeiro wants be bridged quickly?

Some of this depends on results this weekend.  Lose a pair of games at Philadelphia and Buffalo and a postseason berth seems unlikely with 13 left. Win them both – or even split – and you are still alive. Would McPhee punt a potential playoff berth and deal Ribeiro to a contender? If not, he has to be willing to let him walk for nothing. Washington did just that with forward Alex Semin last year and still appears comfortable with that decision. McPhee’s history suggests he values flexibility.

The other question: What exactly is Ribeiro bringing back in a trade? This isn’t even a regular year where you could reasonably expect 20 games from a rental and a playoff series. Thanks to the lockout you might be down to 11 or 12 games and a playoff series. Is that worth a first-round draft pick? Maybe. Much more than that? Unlikely. Jarome Iginla, a 35-year-old star winger who is headed to free agency, was just traded by Calgary to Pittsburgh for two low-level prospects and a draft pick that will be at the end of the first round

Any hopes of acquiring a true top prospect are unreasonable. NHL teams don’t part with cost-controlled potential stars for a mere rental – no matter how good a season he is having. At least smart ones don’t. Maybe McPhee finds the dummy in the group and swindles him. Good luck with that.

The Caps could try to split the difference. Keep Ribeiro, but trade his contract rights just before free agency opens. The return will be even lower, but you could probably get a mid-round pick. They could also hope the lowered salary cap tanks the market – ask former Washington goalie Tomas Vokoun about that – and hope Ribeiro liked it enough here to return to D.C. at a reasonable price. But that doesn’t often happen to a productive offensive player and reason is rarely found on the open market. It is an important, tricky decision that will likely leave Washington’s front office with some sleepless nights between now and Wednesday.

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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