Theme: “Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”
-- Aldous Huxley
In late March of 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp was making its closest approach to Earth, and Mike Knuble was making his debut in the National Hockey League. The comet was probably the bigger story at the time, but Knuble has managed to skate in almost 1,000 regular season games in the NHL since then. That is a lot of experience. It commands a certain amount of respect, and it was on display last winter in a rant that might have shaken the Caps out of the doldrums of a losing streak far more effectively than what any coach might say…
"Today, it's 3-0 and it will not f***ing be one of these laughers again. "It will not f***ing turn into a 5-0, 7-0 f***ing laugher. Where they're f***ing giggling getting out of their f***ing mess here. We are f***ing down 3-0 and we are going to come back and we're gonna f***ing win this thing. We're not f***ing going in the thank. That is enough right there. That's f***ing more than a year's worth. It's not going to happen again."
In that game against the Boston Bruins, the Caps ended up losing, 3-2, coming up just short in a furious comeback effort. It was the last loss in an eight-game losing streak, and the team went on to finish the season 30-11-7. It might almost be cliché to say that it was the store of his experience that gave Knuble the sense of timing to go off like that, but Knuble does bring that stored memory of 968 games with five clubs to the room. It might not be the best skill set he has, but the club values that kind of experience enough to have sought out more of it for the 2011-2012 season in the person of Jeff Halpern (792 games) and Roman Hamrlik (1,311 games).
But Knuble isn’t a player who has merely hung around for 14 seasons. He has compiled a total of 268 goals over those 14 seasons and is riding a streak of eight in a row with at least 20 goals. Six times in the last 12 season he played in every game, and eight times played in more than 75 games – he has been durable. Only once in the past ten seasons has he been a “minus” player.
But at age 39, can he still contribute as a top-six forward? If last season was an indication, the question cannot be dismissed. He was third among forwards in goals scored per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, something to watch for this season in his role as a forward expected to clean up loose change from in close. There is the matter of Knuble being third on the team in shots on goal but seventh on the team in Corsi/on ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). Knuble isn’t necessarily a creator of shots in the same sense teammates Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, or even Nicklas Backstrom might be (they had the highest Corsi/one ice ratings at 5-on-5), but one thing that might be of concern is that Knuble had the second highest shots against/20 minutes at 5-on-5 among Cap forwards (Marcus Johansson had the highest, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
Fearless’ Take: Knuble is a responsible player who still manages to do the little things well. His 31 blocked shots was fifth among Capital forwards last season, and he was fifth in takeaways. His takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 2.5:1 was second on the team among forwards playing in at least 50 games (Eric Fehr was tops). Knuble doesn’t play outside his skill zone in ways that would make him sloppy with the puck. And there is this. In his last 25 games last season Knuble was 11-7-18, plus-7. That is a 36-goal scoring pace per 82 games. Seems he might have something left in the tank.
Cheerless’ Take: In the last ten seasons only 12 times have players age 39 or older have recorded at least 20 goals in a season (Dave Andreychuk and Teemu Selanne each did it twice). In no season in the last ten have more than two players at that age or older done it (although last season there were only six forwards in that age group who skated in at least one game).
The Big Question… Is Knuble the player in the 39-or-older age group to reach 20 goals in 2010-2011?
The 20-goal number almost defines Knuble as a player – it reflects consistency and durability, two of the hallmarks of his game. The other things he does – and he is a more of a player than just a garbage collector in front of the opponent’s net – flow from that consistency and durability. And looking at the 12 players age-39 or older who reached 20 goals over the past ten seasons, there are no flukes in there. They are players such as Brendan Shanahan and Mark Recchi, Ron Francis and Joe Nieuwendyk – players who consistently produced well into their late-30’s.
In the end…
The caveat we would attach to Knuble’s ability to reach 20 goals for Washington this season is that he would have to be playing alongside the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, or Alexander Semin. Knuble is not a player who will create many goals on his own. He is more opportunistic than opportunity-creating as an offensive player. And that is where age does and perhaps will come into play. Will he be a drag on those other players, or will he complement them? This question comes to mind having watched Marcus Johansson skating regularly with Alex Ovechkin in camp thus far. Knuble would seem an odd fit with that pair. But one of Knuble along with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin – a more deliberate pair in style – could be quite effective. That’s what makes this time of year interesting…the possibilities.
Projection: 78 games, 24-21-45, plus-13