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Caps Catch 22

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
If you watch tape of the dying seconds of double overtime in Game 4 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Caps and the Flyers, you will see a hulking presence parked at the goalpost immediately to the left of Washington goaltender Cristobal Huet. The replay shows that hulking presence whacking Huet’s glove hand with his stick while almost simultaneously taking a pass from a teammate on the other side of the net. As quickly as he takes that pass, the aforementioned hulking presence – sporting uniform No. 22 – deposits it into the vacant area where Huet’s glove had been, before it was whacked.

That’s how Game 4 ended, with Mike Knuble (hulking presence) putting the game-winner behind Huet to give the Flyers a commanding 3-1 series lead. On Wednesday, the Caps signed Knuble to a two-year contract with the idea of having him play the right side of a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Knuble’s role on that line is essentially the same as it has been for the better part of this decade: to take the shortest route to the net, arrive in ill humor, and show little respect to the goaltender upon arrival. That has been Knuble’s bread and butter for the last seven seasons, during which he has averaged 27 goals and 54 points per season while showing excellent durability as well. Knuble has suited up for 467 of his team’s 492 games (95%) during that span.

“I know what I do well,” says the strapping winger. “I complement players. I’ve been able to be successful and they’ve been able to be successful. I think I’ve just kind of figured that out and figured out what I do well, and that is to be hanging around the net and winning puck battles and working hard for the other guys on the line.”

“I’m happy with the way we’ve played,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “We just felt that we needed someone else – and on that line in particular – that will go to the net. Backstrom and Ovechkin are going to have the puck a lot and we need someone around the net to do some of the dirty work. Mike’s made his living there. He’s done a real good job in that regard. He’s been remarkably consistent in the number of games he played and the number of goals he scored in the last five or six years.”

“He is a big guy who has really good hands around the net and is really good along the wall. And we needed that.”

Knuble is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound right wing with a right-handed shot. He is known as a gritty, hard-working player who helps create space for his linemates and who consistently pays the price to go to the front of the net. Knuble wins puck battles along the wall and is a staple at the top of the paint on the power play. He has scored at least 10 power play goals in each of the last four seasons. Although he scores many of his goals by virtue of being near the net, Knuble also possesses a hard and underrated shot.

Having lost sizeable winger Viktor Kozlov to free agency, the Caps have replaced him with Knuble, at roughly the same price. McPhee and his hockey operations staff scoured the list of unrestricted free agents and kept coming back to one name.

 “We went through everything and in every scenario, “ says McPhee, “it kept coming up that this was the right guy for us. So we got what we thought was the right deal done for him. We’re really pleased with the results of today. We wanted to add a guy and we did. We replaced a 13-goal scorer [Kozlov] with a 27-goal scorer. We think our team is better as a result.”

With Knuble, the Caps believe they are better off the ice as well as on the ice.

“It’s been really important to our organization that we have good players in the room as well as good players on the ice,” declares McPhee. “All the research we’ve done and all the people we’ve talked to have said this is a real stand-up, quality guy. He’s really the ideal free agent signing for us today.”

Detroit drafted Knuble with a fourth-round choice (76th overall) in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. After starring at the U. of Michigan for four years, Knuble got his first taste of pro hockey in the Calder Cup playoffs with the 1994-95 Adirondack Red Wings. He got a nine-game taste in Detroit during the 1996-97 season and was a rookie on the 1997-98 Stanley Cup championship team that swept the Caps in the final.

Knuble went to the Rangers in 1998-99, where he played in all 82 games for the first of six times in his 13-year NHL career. Traded to Boston late in his second season with New York, Knuble was a fourth-liner for two-plus seasons with the B’s before he finally had his breakout season at the age of 30 in 2002-03.

“I think it was a little bit of everything,” he says now, asked what led to his emergence as a consistent scorer. “I got a chance. Sergei Samsonov was playing with Joe Thornton and Glen Murray and he went down. He had a wrist problem that required surgery. They auditioned a couple of guys and I went in there. I think at the beginning of the season, I was still a healthy scratch. This was only two or three weeks into the season when Sergei broke down, and that’s my break.

“I guess I didn’t lose confidence in myself as a player, but I really hadn’t played enough to establish any confidence, either. I just hung around and kept believing in myself. There are a lot of breaks out there. A lot of times with chances for guys, opportunities to do something with it, to grab it and do something and run with it, a lot of times you can’t do it. But I was very fortunate up there in Boston to get a chance, to have an opportunity and then I kind of ran with it.”

He ran with it to the tune of 30 goals in 2002-03 and 21 the following season. Knuble spent the lockout season of 2004-05 with Linkoping of the Swedish Elite League. He signed with Philadelphia for 2005-06, and averaged 29 goals during his four seasons with the Flyers.

Now, he heads to Washington.

“Washington was a team that we had heard might be interested,” says Knuble. “It was everything that I wanted in another team. It was on the East Coast, it was another good city on the East Coast and it was another team that is considered one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference the last few years. I think the team is on the verge of something good and maybe something great. If it wasn’t going to work out in Philly, I wanted to go to somewhere where I had a chance to contend and I had a great city to live in. So Washington was a pretty good fit in that respect.

Having played with elite players such as Thornton and Peter Forsberg, Knuble knows what his role is and has a good sense of how his game fits in with his linemates. He doesn’t anticipate any difficulty in working with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

“I feel like I have confidence I know what I am doing out there,” says the veteran winger. “I know what to do for these guys and how to work and win battles in corners and do a lot of the dirty work to get these guys the puck. I take pride in that and it’s brought me a lot of success. I don’t think anybody needs to tell me how to play with these guys. I am hoping for the chance to play with them and I’m hoping we mesh quick and I hope we have a lot of success.”

Although he plays the game hard and fearlessly heads for the high traffic areas, Knuble has been remarkably durable. He has played all 82 games in four of the last five NHL seasons.

“If you look at my statistics throughout my career,” he says, “I didn’t play a lot of hockey until I even turned 30. It might have been the ’02-03 season when I finally hit 30 goals. I didn’t have a lot of mileage on me. I like to consider myself a low-mileage guy. The guys that play a lot when they’re younger, by the time they get to 37, they’ve got the back problem, they’ve got the knee problem, they’ve got the shoulders or the wrists or whatever. As frustrating as it was to sit on the bench as a fourth-liner back then, in the long run it’s been a blessing by not letting me get too beat up early in my career.”

For most of last season, Knuble played on the right side of a line with Flyers winger Simon Gagne (34 goals) and Philly pivot Mike Richards (30 goals). Knuble scored 27 himself, and he has enjoyed two 30-goal seasons in the NHL. But he has no illusions of himself as a star player.

“Hopefully, I’m part of the puzzle. I am not a solution; I’m a piece. And I realize that, I am a piece to the puzzle. Whether the parts are there or whether they get another guy here or there, or whether they tweak one way or another it is going to be a great run. I am really looking forward to seeing how we are going to shape up this season. I think everybody in Washington is getting older. Typically, they’ve been a young team. You get a couple of years experience under their belt and I think this is a team that is ready to take the next step.”

As for McPhee, he and his staff will be spending the rest of the summer looking for other ways to make the Capitals a better hockey team. It’s unlikely that further free agency forays are ahead this summer, but there are other ways to improve the team.

“As we said [Tuesday],” reiterates McPhee, “we’re probably not going to do a lot in free agency. If there is something there that makes sense, we’re going to do it. This made sense. We did it. And we’ll spend the next couple of months talking to clubs and seeing what other things can be done out there.”

Notes – Left wing Donald Brashear, a member of the Capitals for the last three seasons, signed a two-year deal with the New York Rangers worth a total of $2.8 million today.
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