When discussing the leadership abilities of teammate Mike Knuble, Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich talked about where Knuble learned his lessons.
"He started in Detroit," he said. "That's a pretty good group to learn from."
Now 38 years old and in his 14th NHL season, Knuble is passing along the lessons learned early in his career to a Capitals team that has righted its ship in the last three months and looks to be picking up steam as it heads into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When Knuble started in Detroit, he got to learn from some of the best leaders in the game -- Steve Yzerman, Larry Murphy and Nicklas Lidstrom among them.
Those players weren't scream-the-paint-off-the-wall leaders; it was more of the leadership-by-example model. But when they spoke, teammates hung on every word.
That's the role Knuble presently serves for the Capitals, and it's one of the reasons they've been able to rescue a season that appeared to be in disarray in December. They now seem poised to win a fourth straight Southeast Division title while challenging for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
"He's been around so many years, and he's a very smart guy," teammate Nicklas Backstrom told NHL.com. "He knows what he's doing. … You can just tell in the locker room, too -- when he's speaking out, everybody's listening in. When he has something to say, you just try to suck it in."
What Knuble does, according to Laich, is keep a relatively young team balanced. Its core players -- Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, John Carlson -- all are under 27, and the Caps are among the League leaders this season in games played by rookies. All that youthful enthusiasm has a tendency to ride the ups and downs of a season to their extremes.
Knuble, though, does his best to make sure his teammates don't get too high or too low over the course of a long, 82-game season.
"Mike does a lot of things that the public eye isn't fortunate to see," Laich told NHL.com. "For the longest time he was the only veteran guy we had around here. He's been through Stanley Cups, he's won (one, in 1998), is almost at 1,000 regular-season games. Guys with that sort of experience are few and far between. Mike is very team-minded all the time -- what's best for the team. He keeps things pretty balanced in here. Especially with a young group that tends to get too high or too low sometimes.
"Mike is able to see things in the big picture. A lot of times when guys are down, he'll say you're not playing that bad, we're OK there, just a bounce here or there. He's been a very calming presence for our group."
As the oldest player on the team, he sees that role as part of his job description. But when the Caps went into their eight-game winless swoon in December, Knuble's leadership abilities were put to the test.
"That's my job being one of the older guys -- you have to stay things at times," Knuble told NHL.com. "I don't think you need to go into specifics. You got a good sampling of our situation, all that '24/7' stuff -- there was a whole month of tough play there."
During one episode of the HBO's Sports Emmy-nominated "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To The NHL Winter Classic" series, fans got a small window into just what Knuble's off-ice demeanor means to his team when he stepped out of character during an intermission to challenge his teammates to play better. It didn't work that night, but it certainly made an impression.
"Generally he's a pretty calm guy and he'll make points here and there," Laich said. "There was one instance where he really stepped up and addressed the team during an intermission and did so in a tone of voice and in a way that we hadn't seen Mike do it, and guys really paid attention. He challenged us as a team and challenged us as individuals that we needed to be better. To be able to do that takes a lot of courage, but you have to have the respect of the players to do that and Mike certainly has that. It really made a difference to us at that time."
And like he sets the tone in locker room, he does it on the ice, as well. His goal Tuesday against the Flyers gave him his eighth straight season with at least 20, and most of them, as usual, have come not much more than a stick blade's length from the net.
"You just look at him, he's always doing the right things out there," Backstrom said.
"He goes to the dirty areas, he hacks and whacks and he gets those goals," added Laich, who plays a similar style. "Those kind of guys are usually overshadowed by the stars, but they're the meat and potatoes of your group and they're the reason you consistently win hockey games. He's done that here. I've watched him, how he does it, how he positions his body, and also the compete level when he gets into those areas. You see a veteran guy still doing it like that, it really has a funnel-down effect on the rest of the guys.
"He's also responsible defensively, so if he is playing with more offensive-minded players, he can cover up for their mistakes. He can block shots, he chips pucks out, he's as strong on the boards as probably anybody in the League. He's a big guy (6-foot-3, 223 pounds), he's very powerful out on the ice and he can cover for other players' deficiencies."
Knuble also is starting to heat up at the right time. He has 5 goals and 3 assists in his last five games.
"He's starting to play his best hockey this year," Laich said, "and that's a really good sign for us."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK