When forward Mike Ribeiro signed a one-year contract with the Nashville Predators last summer, many thought the best days of his career were behind him.
His four-year contract with the Arizona Coyotes was bought out after one season because of behavioral issues, according to Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, and his point production had slipped in each of the past two seasons.
Through the first half of this season, Ribeiro has silenced his critics, finding success on and off the ice. He focused on getting his personal life back in order in the offseason, and that was a big reason he decided to sign with the Predators in the first place. The media scrutiny isn't high here, and it's a good place to raise a family.
"It's been great," Ribeiro said. "It's pretty quiet, but it's more about work than anything else. It's a good fit for me, and the boys in the room have been great with me. I'm just happy to be here."
Ribeiro's on-ice production has been a welcome surprise for the Predators. He has nine goals and 29 assists in 42 games and trails only linemate Filip Forsberg for the team lead in points. Ribeiro has been consistent all season and has 21 points in the past 20 games.
"I knew I was going to have a good season, but obviously playing with good players helps," Ribeiro said. "When you're playing with a good team and good players, you seem to play better and to look better. I knew I was going to have a good year. I don't know if I had in mind the same amount of points I have right now, but I knew I was going to be focused on what I had to do."
Puck possession is a big part of Ribeiro's game. He's been able to hold on to the puck this season and makes patient plays when he has it. Ribeiro doesn't seem to be fazed by tight pressure or areas on the ice where there is not a lot of room.
"He's one of the few players in the League where the puck constantly seems to stick to him," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "When he's around it and in trouble, it's like it's just a magnet to him. He can do a lot of creative things in small spaces with heavy pressure on him. He's been that way his whole career, and he certainly has made a difference on our team. He's an impact player night after night."
Ribeiro spent the first part of the season on a line with Forsberg and James Neal. They were the primary source of offense for Nashville early on, with Ribeiro feeding the puck to two gifted goal-scorers. That pass-first mentality has resulted in Ribeiro being near the top of the NHL in assists.
"It always helps when you play with good players, and I've been lucky enough to play most of the season with Filip and James," Ribeiro said. "Guys who can shoot the puck, and top players in the League. I just have to stay focused on my job and come to the rink ready to play games."
Neal has been moved to the second line and Craig Smith has filled in on Ribeiro's line, but Forsberg has been a constant linemate of Ribeiro's. Forsberg has 15 goals and 24 assists in 42 games and arguably has been the top rookie in the League.
"It's so weird to say rookie, because he doesn't act like one," Ribeiro said. "He looks so much more mature than a 20-year-old kid. It's hard for me to imagine he's a rookie. I feel like he's been in the League for a few years at least."
Forsberg said he believes playing with Ribeiro has been a major reason for his offensive success. Ribeiro's creativity with the puck has allowed Forsberg to get open looks at the net, and he has been able to capitalize. Ribeiro has been a big help away from the rink also.
"He's always going to get you the puck, even when you're not really expecting it," Forsberg said. "You've got to be on your toes ready to get it. Off the ice too, he's been in the League a really long time and he's an experienced guy. I try to pick up as much as I can from him on the ice, and even more probably off the ice."
Deception is a big part of Ribeiro's game. He has a variety of moves with the puck in his repertoire that throw defenders, and sometimes even his teammates, off balance. Ribeiro's linemates know they always have to be ready to receive the puck.
"He's able to hang onto it when he looks like he's almost lost it and guys are on him," Neal said. "They kind of fall off of him because he's so slippery with the puck. You've got to always be ready. He's got great vision. He's a pass-first guy, so he's always looking to give us the open net."
Ribeiro has been a key contributor for arguably the NHL's most surprising team in the first half of the season. Nashville leads the League with a 29-9-4 record after finishing 10th in the Western Conference last season.
New players, a new coaching staff and a new system have given the Predators a makeover, and the results have consistently been there. The Predators have not lost two games in a row all season. Not even Ribeiro knew this type of success would come so quickly.
"I thought we were going to be a strong team and be hard to play against," Ribeiro said. "You build teams with goaltending nowadays and your back end, and we have that. It was a matter of just jelling together. A lot of new players, a new coach, a new system, and I think from Day One we believed that we had a good team here and it's been showing on the ice."
Ribeiro will turn 35 on Feb. 10 and he, much like his team, will try to build on the strong start. Nashville is going to rely on Ribeiro to handle big minutes as the first-line center.
"I'm going to try to keep up the pace," Ribeiro said. "I think lately I've been playing average. I need to play better. You don't want to look too far ahead, but the last stretch is usually the hardest. It seems every year you used to say, 'After the All-Star break is when you look for a playoff spot,' but nowadays it's from game one that you have to win every game. We've been preparing every game, and I think it won't be different after the All-Star break."
The ultimate goal for Ribeiro and the Predators this season is to win the Stanley Cup. As the top team in the League through the first half, Ribeiro said he believes the Predators have what it takes to compete for the ultimate prize.
"I think we have put ourselves in a situation where you're able to win a Cup and that's to make the playoffs first," Ribeiro said. "… Obviously, we're really confident in our goaltending. Our defense, that's the second thing in the playoffs. Not a lot of goals. It's a really tight game. It's the teams that can come out on top when it's a really tight game, and I think we believe that we can win one whether we're in the lead or if we're behind. I think we have a good chance."
Author: Robby Stanley | NHL.com Correspondent