Thursday, July 02, 2009

Say WHAT?!

In 1981, Joe DiMaggio gave his opinion to Sports Illustrated on the escalation of salaries in major league baseball...

"If I were sitting down with George Steinbrenner (to discuss a salary) and based on what Dave Winfield got for his statistics, I'd have to say, 'George, you and I are about to become partners.'"

That quote came to mind upon reading that Mikhail Grabovski was signed to a three-year/$8.7 million contract to re-up with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Next summer, Nicklas Backstrom is going to sit down with Ted Leonsis and raise the possibility of a partnership, if this is what a 25-year old with one full season played in the NHL (48 points) -- the only one he's spent in Toronto -- and barely 100 games of NHL experience is getting.

The Meaning of Knuble

OK, so the Caps got a right winger with size and a nose for the net. That's descriptive, to a point. But inserting Knuble into the Capitals lineup has, one would think, quantitative meaning. It does.

First, that "nose for the net" thing. If you look at the Caps at 5-on-5 last year, only Eric Fehr (among right wingers) shot the puck from a shorter average distance (29.5 feet) than Knuble (30.0 feet). If Fehr is the right wing in waiting -- the guy expected some day to be that winger with a nose for the net -- he's going to have a good role model to observe in Knuble.

Then there is the matter of Knuble being a capable first-line right wing, a replacement for the departed Viktor Kozlov. Kozlov was a player of considerable skill, a skill that too often went unexpressed. In 148 games with the Caps, Kozlov (skating largely with the top line, matched with Alex Ovechkin and either Nicklas Backstrom or Sergei Fedorov) went 29-66-95, +19. In his last two seasons, Knuble played in all 164 games and went 56-46-102, +2, playing along side of talent that arguably didn't match what Kozlov played with.

How Knuble might feast in this environment, though, is reflected in shots. Kozlov was and probably is a better, smoother puck handler. His ability to lug the puck into the offensive zone under control and maintain possession was a valuable commodity. The flip side of that, however, is that Kozlov really didn't shoot the puck that much (certainly not much for a player of his skill level). His 3.18 shot attempts-per-game (shots on goal, shots blocked, shots missed) was only sixth among forwards on the team. On the other hand, Knuble averaged 3.65 shot attempts per game last year (15 percent higher than Kozlov). Part of this difference is ice time (Knuble averaged about 2.5 minutes more in average ice time than Kozlov), but Knuble's presence might take some of the pressure off of Alex Ovechkin from having to launch (not that he's against this sort of thing) the 9.9 shot attempts-per-game he had last season.

Then there is the power play and the man Knuble is likely to replace here. That would seem to be Brooks Laich, and that could be a win-win. Here is why. Knuble is adept at planting himself in the goalie's line of vision and capitalizing on tips and rebounds. He was fourth among Flyer forwards last year in power play scoring last year, third in goals (11-9-20). Laich was also fourth in power play scoring among forwards, third in goals (9-15-24). What Knuble's addition can do is provide Laich with opportunities on the second power play unit -- presumably against weaker penalty killers -- to perform the same role, parking in front and collecting loose change. It's worth noting here, too, that Knuble's 11-9-20 compares favorably to Kozlov's 2-13-15 on the power play.

There is the matter of Knuble's post-season production, or lack of it. It has been mentioned as a drawback to this signing. In 41 career post-season games, he is 8-11-19, -9. Fair enough; that's not exactly lighting it up. On the other hand, Kozlov -- whose roster spot Knuble assumes -- was 4-8-12, -6 in 35 career post-season games. Not much difference there. But here's the thing. Kozlov was a slow starter. In his first five appearances in the playoffs, he was 0-6-6, -11 in 21 games. He was 4-2-6, +5 in 14 games this past post-season with the Caps.

Knuble's path is similar. In his first four appearance in the playoffs (with the Red Wings and Bruins), he was 2-3-5, -7 in 17 games. In three playoff appearances with the Flyers, he was 6-8-14, -2 in 24 games. Not as large an improvement as Kozlov, perhaps (although one might always question if that was a one-shot wonder for Kozlov), but steadier.

There is also the matter of consistency. In his four years with the Flyers, Knuble played in all 82 games three times. He averaged 28.5 goals a year. If you take his 2006-2007 season, in which he missed 18 games, and convert his 24 goals scored to an equivalent 82-game pace, then his four seasons with the Flyers had goal totals of 34, 31, 29, and 27. There is the hint of a downward trend there, but it is also rather consistent.

And, with that goal scoring, he's accurate. In his four seasons with the Flyers, he never had a shooting percentage worse than 15.0 percent. In the last four seasons, only one Cap has bettered 15 percent more than once (Alexander Semin, who has done it twice).

Knuble brings attributes and skills that the Caps simply haven't had and that they have desperately needed -- size (and an inclination to use it), an ability to score from in close, consistency, reliability. We read that he has been a model teammate in Philadelphia, which can't hurt in a locker room where chemistry seems to be an essential ingredient to success.

Is Mike Knuble worth the extra $300,000 a year that he will be paid above that which Viktor Kozlov was paid? Today, in the beginning of July, you'd have to say he was a bargain. But grades don't get handed out before the first day of class, either. This deal works if, all other things equal, the Caps go further in the playoffs than they did this past season. But right now, Knuble looks to be the right fit for this team to achieve precisely that aim. He is that "next tier" of free agent that seems more often to make a difference than the guys who grab the headlines on the first day of signings.