GLENDALE, Ariz. – Made aware that the Washington area was again covered in several inches of snow earlier this week, a playful grin crept across Mike Ribeiro’s face.
“Yeah, I know,” Ribeiro said, amused. “I’m going to go lay down by the pool now.”
Ribeiro would like to believe that his life is that carefree, and maybe it should be. His 41 points lead the Phoenix Coyotes, who signed him to a four-year, $22 million contract in July after one season with the Washington Capitals.
Yet, Ribeiro readily admits, the change of scenery hasn’t been easy, and he hopes a brief respite of familiarity can shake him from his funk. The Coyotes will kick off a four-game road trip against the Capitals on Saturday, marking Ribeiro’s first game in the city since he left in July.
“It’s always fun,” Ribeiro said. “I went back to Dallas, too, this year, and I’ve been there, but it’s always nice to go back to those cities and see those teams and see the people and the people who are working there and the fans, too. It’ll be cool.”
Ribeiro, 34, enjoyed a successful season in 2013, when he was acquired by the Capitals via a trade with the Dallas Stars before the season. Filling in as their second-line center and joining their top power play unit, Ribeiro had 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points, second only to right wing Alex Ovechkin.
And though he wanted to return to the Capitals, and the Capitals were open to having him return, contract negotiations were complicated. Up against the salary cap, Washington wasn’t willing to give Ribeiro more than a three-year deal, and Ribeiro wanted at least five years – essentially, a guarantee he would finish his career with the team.
Ultimately, Ribeiro accepted a five-year, $22 million contract offer from the Coyotes shortly after free agency opened on July 5. He said the Capitals were “not close” and “it was kind of confusing” that they would let him leave despite his performance.
“They had to make choices, and they took the choices that they thought was best for them,” Ribeiro said. “It’s not like I was asking a lot more than what I was [earning]. It just didn’t make sense for me to take less. Like, you have a great year, why would you take a pay cut? It didn’t make sense. I was ready to take the same that I had, but they weren’t ready to do it. They [cited the] salary cap, but at the end of the day, if they wanted to keep me, they could have.”
Ribeiro was the Coyotes‘ marquee free-agent acquisition, and upon signing the deal, he projected to slot in between Shane Doan and Mikkel Boedker on the top line. Instead, Ribeiro has spent much of the season on the third line, grinding out slightly more than 18 minutes of ice time a game.
He’s struggled to adapt to a defense-oriented system under coach Dave Tippett, who coached Ribeiro for four seasons with the Dallas Stars. His emotions have continued to get the better of him, as evidenced Sunday in a road loss to the Colorado Avalanche, when he was handed a 10-minute misconduct for arguing with officials in the second period and remained on the bench the rest of the game.
And, after making strides to reconnect with his family during his year with the Capitals, he said only that “life is a little bit different than it was” and asked that his personal life not be discussed.
“He’s had some good games here and there,” Tippett said. “I think there’s still more in him, but I think it’s taken him a while to get acclimated here and I think there’s still better play in him. That being said, he’s our leading scorer, so if he can play better, that would be a bonus for us.”
Ribeiro believes his biggest issue is still one that plagued him much of last year. Though he’s been given plenty of opportunities, especially on the power play, he still looks to pass the puck rather than take a shot.
With 14 goals through the Coyotes‘ first 62 games, including only four in 2014, Ribeiro is on pace for just 18 goals. That mark would tie the fewest he’s had in a non-lockout season since 2005-06, when he was in his first full season with the Montreal Canadiens.