Much is made of the fact that it can take goaltenders and defensemen years to develop into legitimate regulars at the NHL level. While the path to making it as a forward in the NHL may not be fraught with as many obstacles, there is a certain breed of forwards that rarely come into the NHL ready to excel.
Washington fans have had the sublime pleasure of watching Alex Ovechkin chainsaw his way through opposing defenses right from his very first shift in his very first game some four years ago. But the reality is that many power forwards take longer – and sometimes much longer – to develop.
Capitals right wing Mike Knuble has played 820 regular season games in the NHL in a career that has spanned a dozen seasons. He has scored 215 goals in the league, but did not score the first of those tallies until he was a couple months shy of his 25th birthday.
Caps winger Eric Fehr celebrated his 24th birthday earlier this month. The Caps’ first choice (18th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Fehr has potted 15 goals and totaled 34 points in 109 NHL games over parts of four seasons in the league.
At a similar stage if experience (124 NHL games), Knuble had tallied 23 goals and 49 points in the league.
When the Caps signed the 37-year-old Knuble as a free agent over the summer, it took away a top six right wing spot, on that Fehr would have loved competing for. But it also brings into the locker room a player who knows what Fehr is going through, and someone that Fehr can use as a mentor and a sounding board.
“I’ve said hello and gotten acquainted with him,” says Fehr of Knuble. “And slowly throughout the year, I’ll probably get a little bit closer with him as I start to learn the position a little bit better.
“He’s a player where I try to play that kind of style. To be able to watch him in practice, he tips everything he sees. He’s great around the net. Just to be able to watch him and see how he does it will be important for my development, I think.”
Knuble took the college route to the NHL, playing four years at U. of Michigan before debuting with Detroit in 1996-97. He spent six seasons in the NHL before he finally got a shot at being a regular top six forward with Boston in 2002-03. Knuble did not squander that chance; he netted 30 goals.
“Sometimes as a player it takes you a while to find your niche,” says Knuble. “It takes the right opportunity, it takes the right breaks and you’ve got to have some luck on your side. As a player I got up to 28 or 29 [years of age] searching for an identity. And then finally one year I had my chance to play on a top line when somebody else went down with an injury and my career went a whole different direction.”
Fehr played junior hockey in the rugged Western Hockey League, where he racked up 50 goals in 2003-04 and 59 in 2004-05, all while filling out into a 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. He debuted in the NHL as a 20-year-old in 2005-06, getting scant ice time in 11 games. After scoring 20 or more goals in each of two seasons with AHL Hershey, Fehr was ready to compete for a job in the District. But that’s when his body began to betray him.
First, it was a mysterious and lingering hip ailment that cost him the end of the 2006-07 season and the first half of the 2007-08 campaign. he made the Caps out of camp last fall and put up a dozen goals and 25 points in 61 games, respectable totals given his measured ice time and lack of power play time. Again though, injury intervened. Fehr suffered a shoulder injury during the season and another in the playoffs. He had surgery to fix both shoulders and although he has been skating daily at camp, he has not yet been cleared to participate in contact drills and scrimmages.
“It would be nice to really get going again,” laments Fehr. “I’ve been sidelined the last couple of years having some kind of injury pretty much throughout the entire pro career so far. Hopefully I can put those things behind me. You don’t want to blame your downfalls on it, but at the same time it was hindering me a little bit. Hopefully I can really strengthen it and get myself ready for a successful season and hopefully career.”
Getting back to full strength is the first step. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau recently mentioned Fehr as a possible replacement for Tomas Fleischmann, who is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season because of deep vein thrombosis. Although Fehr is a right wing by trade, he feels he’d be fine skating the left side, as Fleischmann does.
“That would be awesome,” says Fehr. “I don’t mind playing right or left as long as I have a bit of a steady position I can get used to it. I like coming down the left-hand side kind of like Ovi does, with obviously not the same results every time. But that’s something I’d like to work on.”
Fehr is close to being ready, and believes he’ll be back to full participation soon.
“I feel like I’m there right now,” Fehr declares. “I am definitely lacking a little bit in the upper body strength but I feel like I can take a couple of hits here and there as long as they’re not too hard. It’s been a long process since my surgery with rehab. There really is no point in putting that on the line in camp or a couple exhibition games where it could put me at risk for the season. I’ve just got to be a little more patient here. It’s real frustrating, but I’ve waited three and a half months, I can wait a couple more weeks.”
Waiting a couple more weeks won’t be so bad, especially if he ends up carving out a career similar to Knuble’s. The hockey roadside is littered with should-be, would-be power forwards who never quite put it all together (think Landon Wilson and Brad Isbister) for whatever reason. As a guy who outlasted the odds, Knuble has some great advice for players like Fehr.
“I guess what I’d tell players is you’ve got to hang in there,” states Knuble. “You’ve still got to find some way to buy time so they don’t kick you out of the league one way or another and they keep bringing you back. Just always have confidence in yourself and try to work on your skills every day.
“As a young player sometimes you feel like you’ve gotten here and made it and you can shut the switch off. But the fact is, as a young player in your twenties, you can get better. You can get a lot better. You are getting better skill-wise, you can get stronger, you haven’t even reached your real maturity yet. As players, even as older players, you can identify things you can work on and ways you can get better.
“As a young player, you’ve got to keep believing in yourself. I think that’s the thing. You’ve always got to trust in yourself. Because if you’re not trusting in yourself, nobody else is.”