Theme:“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
-- Dylan Thomas
(click pic for larger image)
On the first day of last September’s training camp, the Capitals were subjected to a series of timed sprints with controlled recovery times to test players’ fitness level. For a player turned 39 years old with over a thousand regular season and playoff games in his rear-view mirror, it might have been the kind of test that left Mike Knuble lagging far behind his more youthful teammates. But it turned out that Knuble was one of a few Capitals who handled the test well.
But within a week, Knuble’s spot as the right wing on the first line – the position he held since coming to the Caps via free agency in 2009 – was in jeopardy, under challenge from another new acquisition, Troy Brouwer.
On opening night, though, there was Knuble stepping onto the ice with his regular linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin 20 seconds into their game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Even when Knuble recorded two goals in his first nine games it was not a concern. In his best goal-scoring season (2005-2006, when he had 34 goals for the Philadelphia Flyers) he had three in his first eight games. Even last season, when he finished with 24 goals – his eighth straight season with more than 20 – he had but one goal in his first 14 games. Hot starts were not generally a part of his history.
But this time, after he got those two goals in his first nine games, Knuble would go his next 16 games without one. He had played himself onto a third line with Cody Eakin and Marcus Johansson in that 16th game in the streak and was averaging in the low teens in ice time. He broke the goal-less streak with a score against Florida on December 5th, but then would go his next 34 games before getting another one.
By this time – March 13th – Knuble was now becoming a healthy scratch as often as not, and when he was playing he was getting third and fourth line minutes. When the regular season came to an end, Knuble had six goals in 72 games, the fewest of any season since he had one in nine games in his first season with the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-1997. His 18 points were his lowest point total since he had 14 in 54 games with the Boston Bruins in 2001-2002.
Nowhere, perhaps, was the abrupt fall-off in production more evident than on the power play. Knuble came into the season with 62 power play goals in 451 regular season games since the lockout. He finished the season with 62 power play goals in 523 games since the lockout. His ice time on the man advantage was cut by more than half from the 2010-2011 season – from 183:48 to 82:16 in total ice time and from 2:19 to 1:08 in power play ice time per game. His failure to record a single power play goal was the first time that happened since that 2001-2002 season in Boston when he played in only 54 games.
Overall, Knuble’s underlying numbers were weak. At 5-on-5 only Cody Eakin (among Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games; number from behindthenet.ca) faced weaker competition, while Knuble’s quality of teammates was third highest among the 15 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games. His raw Corsi value at 5-on-5 was worst among this group of Caps forwards, and his PDO value was second worst. He did not benefit from a comparatively large share of offensive zone starts (46.0 percent, 10th among these 15 forwards), especially when compared with last season (55.0 percent, third highest among Capital forwards), but this does not explain the stark dropoff in summary and underlying numbers. Here is how his numbers fared compared to last season:
Odd Knuble Fact… Knuble had a fairly respectable goals-against/on-ice per 60 minutes (2.37, tied with Jason Chimera for seventh best among Capital forwards), but the utter inability to produce or at least be present for goals scored (1.44 goals-for/on-ice per 60 minutes) meant that Knuble had by far the worst differential of goals-for/goals-against on ice per 60 minutes (-0.93).
Game to Remember… March 19, 2012. It came in the city where it started for Mike Knuble. Heading to Detroit (the Wings drafted him in the fourth round in 1991) having recorded goals in two of his previous three games, Knuble was on what would be his only “hot” streak for the season. He made it three games in four with a goal when Mike Green started a play with a stretch pass from deep in his own end to the Detroit blue line. Mathieu Perreault corralled the puck and fed it off to Jason Chimera on his left. When defenseman Brendan Smith moved to occupy Chimera, Knuble filled the space down the middle. Chimera fed the puck across, and Knuble buried a wrist shot behind Jimmy Howard to give the Caps a 2-0 lead in the first period. Knuble would add an assist later and would be named the game’s third star in the 5-3 Capitals win in Detroit.
Game to Forget… February 7, 2012. In his previous four games, Knuble saw his ice time reduced from 19:50 to 15:07 to 13:13 to 8:31. He had only four shots on goal over those four games (no points) and was a minus-5. On this night against the Florida Panthers – a night that would see Alex Ovechkin net a pair of goals, with Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault chipping in one apiece in a 4-0 win – Knuble would not record so much as a shot attempt, and only his two hits served as marks on his score sheet line in 10:07 of ice time. He would be scratched for the first time in the 2011-2012 season in his next game and would be scratched in nine of his next 14 games overall.
Post-Season… Knuble sat for the first three games of the Boston series, but with the Bruins taking a 2-1 lead in games and the Caps in need of some more bulk in the lineup to offset the Bruins’s physical edge, Knuble returned to the lineup for Game 4. He would get a goal in Game 5 in Boston and record one of the most important assists in Capitals’ history when he stormed in on Tim Thomas in overtime in Game 7 and shot the puck on the Boston netminder, the rebound popping out to Joel Ward for the series-clinching goal. Against the Rangers, things would not work out quite as well. He did have a goal in Game 2 in a 3-2 Caps win, but was otherwise held without a point for the series. One thing to note, though, is that while Knuble finished the regular season tied for a team-worst minus-15, he did not have so much as a single game as a minus player in the post season. He was on ice for only one goal scored against in 11 games and 100:25 of ice time.
In the end… it was not the way one would have wanted the season to go for Knuble, one of the classiest men ever to wear a Capitals sweater. It was especially difficult to watch in that it is very likely his last season in Washington. At age 40 when next season starts (assuming for the moment there is a “next season” this fall), the Caps need to get younger and faster to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Players such as Mathieu Perreault will be competing for more ice time, and those such as Cody Eakin will be angling for a permanent roster spot. But through all the ups and downs this season, Knuble was a professional. He clearly chafed at his diminished role at times, but when one has played at the pinnacle of his sport for a thousand games, it is hardly surprising. Knuble might not go gentle into that good night of his career, but he will do so proudly, in a manner that serves as an example to younger players, and that does credit to him and his career.
(photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America)