Circumstances involved in Ribeiro’s demotion

By Chris Boucher
Hockey players do not live in a vacuum. Their play can be affected by many factors within the game itself. Who they play with, what position they play and how much ice-time they receive are important factors to take into account when judging a player’s performance on the ice.

To say that Mike Ribeiro played himself off the Montréal Canadiens’ roster is irresponsible, as it doesn’t take into account the circumstances that contributed to his poor play.

The 22-year-old natural center’s last goal in the NHL dates back to a January 19th game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ribeiro played just under 14 minutes in that game. Two nights earlier he had played almost 17 minutes against the Carolina Hurricanes, he would go on to play over 18 minutes two nights later against the Florida Panthers.

By this time the Montréal native had become comfortable playing left wing. He had played center throughout his junior career, but left wing afforded Ribeiro the opportunity to develop without the defensive-zone responsibility that comes with pivoting a line.

In hindsight, the acquisition of Sergei Berezin was likely the overwhelming factor in the eventual demotion of Ribeiro. Berezin is a right-handed shot who plays the left side. His arrival forced Ribeiro, still in his rookie campaign, to move to his third position this season (right wing).

The new position brought with it one main difficulty; the defensive zone. The Canadiens’ coaching staff wants the team’s wingers to chip the puck out of the defensive zone when pressured by the opposition’s defenseman. This play is much easier for a right-handed winger playing the right side than it is for a left-handed winger playing the right side. Ribeiro had particular difficulty making this adjustment. Routinely turning the puck over along the half-boards in the defensive zone.

Playing with Berezin also brought with it another difficulty; who’s going to carry the puck? Berezin plays a puck-possession game. He likes to control the puck through the neutral zone in order to gather up speed and gain the zone himself. Ribeiro also likes to play a puck-possession game. Carrying the puck into the offensive zone and stopping-up just above the hash marks on face-off circle, in order to hit the late man with a pass.

Having two players on the same line who both need to carry the puck to create offense spawned huge logistical problems. At times, the two players looked awful together. Even bumping into each other on occasion.

Ribeiro, being the rookie, paid the price for the line’s poor play. His ice-time was cut substantially in subsequent games. He averaged just over 10 minutes of ice-time per-game over his final 10 games in the show. Compared to an average of over 15 minutes prior to Berezin’s arrival. He could routinely be seen on the bench watching Gino Odjick (who suddenly looked like he could fly out there) take his spot alongside Berezin and Yanick Perreault; particularly late in periods.

Another factor that contributed to Ribeiro’s drop in production was a lack of powerplay time. It was around this time that the coaching staff began experimenting with playing Joé Juneau on the point during the man-advantage. With Juneau on the first powerplay Ribeiro lost his opportunity to see valuable powerplay time.

This isn’t to say the Habs’ number 71 isn’t equally responsible his poor play. Ribeiro continued to play an east-west game (cross-ice passes, criss-crossing in the neutral zone) on a team stressing a north-south game (staying in your lane, chipping the puck off the boards, and dumping it in deep).

The demotion to Québec will certainly give Ribeiro the opportunity to improve on certain aspects of his game. He still needs to improve on his speed of execution. His first-step acceleration remains slightly below the NHL average, and his strength could always use more development. The increased ice-time in the AHL has already brought with it offensive success. Through his first 3 games Ribeiro has scored 2 goals and added 4 assists.

Circumstances are a part of life. An NHL rookie needs to create success regardless of the situation they’re placed in. That said, this is not an individual game. The only responsible way to judge any player’s play is to look at the whole picture. Who is he playing with? What position is he playing? How much ice-time is he getting? Nobody plays this game in a vacuum.