Mike Ribeiro has been the subject of trade rumors for the past several seasons, and those rumors finally came to fruition Friday afternoon before the NHL draft as the Dallas Stars dealt him to the Washington Capitals for prospect center Cody Eakin and a second-round pick, No. 54 overall, in this year's draft.
I'll admit, my first reaction was not positive, mostly because I was not pleased with the return. A draft pick that equates to a 25 percent shot at getting a career NHL player and a center who most project to be a low-end second line player at best didn't seem like enough for the player who has led the Stars in assists four of the last six seasons and sits 20th in the league in total points over the last five years.
But the more you look at this move, the more you see that it's just the first in what will almost certainly be a chain of events. Not only do the Stars now have a gaping hole at center, at least of the top six variety, but they also have money practically burning a hole in their pocket for the present and a slowly expanding crop of young prospects for the future. More than this trade, I'm excited about the fact that the Stars are not settling for trying to improve just enough from last year to make the playoffs but will force themselves to make hard decisions that will ideally lead to both short and long-term success.
This is the type of trade we won't be able to fully evaluate until the dust has settled after this free agency period, but for the moment, the motivations for the move are pretty clear.
From a Washington Captials perspective, their rationale for acquiring Ribeiro is clear - they've been on a hunt for a few seasons for a second-line center to play behind Nicklas Backstrom and give the team a one-two punch on the offensive end. Ribeiro, with a very reasonable cap hit to production ratio and a propensity for performing when the spotlight shines on him, is an obvious fit.
The problems that plagued him in Dallas - the defensive struggles, the faceoffs and the burden of having to face the other team's top checkers many nights - will no longer be a problem as he's a well-defined No. 2 there, a role that fits him like a glove. And while they have to give up decent pieces to acquire him for just one year (as opposed to picking up for, say, Janne Niinimaa), it's a very reasonable price for a team looking to win now.
The Stars perspective is a little more complicated than the obvious "they want to get younger!" Of course, the ability to pick up one and possibly two pieces for the future for a guy who probably only had one more season with the team is appealing. And with the help of the 12 teams in front of them at the NHL draft, the Stars were actually able to pick up a second young center in Radek Faksa on the day they let Ribeiro go.
But my suspicion is they're after a center with NHL experience under his belt, either on the free agent market or through trade.
Two things point to this. The first is that saying goodbye to Ribeiro opens up a huge hole on the first or second line, depending on how you distribute the wingers and utilize Jamie Benn. The in-house veterans currently under contract are Steve Ott and Vernon Fiddler. Fiddler lacks the offensive ability, and Ott is much better utilized in a lower-line role. While there are a handful of prospects the Stars might turn to, they have learned the hard way from rushing players like Matt Niskanen that only a select few elite players can jump to a high-minute role in the NHL right away. Even if they are going full-scale tank for the next few years (which is silly with Loui Eriksson in his prime and Benn entering his, but I digress...), they still need a serviceable second-line center while the youngsters develop.
There's also the financial matter, which we will cover in greater detail later this weekend. The loss of RIbeiro's $5 million cap hit means this team had even more flexibility than we expected going into this offseason and in fact will be forced to spend some significant money. Although the details of the salary cap will likely change in the CBA negotiations, under the current rules, the Stars are about $18 million below the floor with about $36 million committed to one goalie, four defensemen and eight forwards. Obviously RFAs and rookies will take up some of that money and some of those roster spots, but the Stars have more than enough room to play with before they even think about sniffing the $70 million cap or whatever the internal budget might be under Tom Gaglardi.
That includes Eakin, a 21-year-old center who split time between the AHL and NHL last season. He wasn't particularly productive in his NHL games, though he posted a respectable four goals and eight points in 30 games, and he had 13 goals and 27 points in 43 games with Hershey. He's a small guy listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, who relies on his speed and agility to create offense, but he doesn't project to be a top scorer at the NHL level. Reports are that he's a decent penalty killer who is average defensively 5-on-5 but an above average shooter and passer. He's also young and could still grow into his body a bit.
He's a nice piece and will almost certainly be on the opening-day roster. But he's likely a lower-line player with the Stars, at least for the time being.
And that's why I'm holding out judgement on this trade for now. I like seeing them add to their stock of young centers. I'm fine, though not particularly excited, about the team getting another second-round pick. But to me, this must be the first of several dominoes to fall to remake this team. The trade in and of itself doesn't make the team that much better in the short term, and in terms of long-term plans, it likely netted them another Jeff Halpern or player of that ilk. Useful, no doubt, but not the top-tier talent the team is hungry for.
What is much more exciting to me is that this move opens up the door to make some significant improvements to this team for the present and future, forcing the team's hand in remaking the top of the roster on the fly. Instead of sitting back and accepting the status quo, they've put themselves in a situation where things are necessarily going to change.
Whether that's for the better or the worse will be determined in the next several weeks.