- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

There’s something Mike Knuble, the Capitals blue-collar right wing, has done even better than Wayne Gretzky. Bet you can’t guess what it is. We’ll hold that thought for a moment, though, and just marvel at his mere presence on the ice Wednesday night in the playoff opener against the Rangers.

After all, eight years ago, at the age of 30, Knuble seriously wondered how much longer he was going to be in the league. He had played six seasons, scored a modest 50 goals and been little more than a fringe player with the Red Wings, Rangers and Bruins.

“As a young player, you’re just trying to find your footing in the league and figure out how you can stay there,” he said Monday after the team announced his one-year contract extension. “At 30, I was right at the edge. As [the Bruins] went forward, was I going to go with them? But then I kinda caught a break, scored 30 goals, and that changed my career, changed my life, changed everything.”

Knuble decided the key to longevity was to hunker down in the crease and become what hockey types call a grinder. Much of the time, he plays as close to the goal as Moses Malone did to the basket. What he’s looking for, as much as anything, is loose change — a shot he can deflect, a rebound he can ram home.

Naturally, it can be crowded in front of the net, as crowded as a subway car at rush hour. But Knuble is good at using his 6-foot-3, 223-pound frame to gain position. A Boston writer once said he looked “like some 16-wheeler trying to angle down an alley in the Back Bay.”

When Knuble says he “kinda caught a break” when he turned 30, he’s talking — as much as anything — about getting to play on a line with Joe Thornton and Glen Murray. It’s a classic combination: the gifted setup man (Thornton), the big-time goal-scorer (Murray) and The Guy Who Does What Knuble Does.

“I’ve had the benefit of playing with good players,” he said, “and I’ve been able to complement these guys. As long as they keep scoring, coaches are happy, and you kinda get dragged along and score goals, too. My game is pretty simple. Good players have the puck a lot. They’re going to get it toward the net. You just have to get yourself in position to do something with it when you get the chance. It’s not rocket science.”

No, more like full-contact geometry. But Knuble is one of the foremost practitioners of the art. And as he said, he’s been surrounded by terrific talent. In Philadelphia it was Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne, and in Washington it’s Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.

As a result, a player who averaged less than 10 goals a season before the age of 30 has averaged 27.3 since. Has anybody in NHL history had a career like that? Certainly not in modern times.

Knuble has scored 218 goals since his 30th birthday — and he would have scored more if he hadn’t lost a year to the lockout. That’s 30 more than Gretzky (188), The Great One, scored in his 30s. It’s also more than Steve Yzerman (211) and Sergei Fedorov (201) scored in their 30s. If Knuble has another 20-goal season next year — he’s had eight in a row — he’ll pass players like Jean Beliveau (233), Luc Robitaille (234), Joe Nieuwendyk (236) and former Caps Peter Bondra (236) and Dino Ciccarelli (237).

(Hey, I’m as shocked as you are. I had no idea until I started doing some research.)

Like the rest of the roster, Knuble got off to a slow offensive start this season. As Bruce Boudreau put it, “In the month of December, we were wondering about everybody, not just him.” But Knuble broke loose for nine goals in 12 games down the stretch to help the Capitals leapfrog into the East lead. He even scored in a shootout against the Flyers to give the Caps arguably their most crucial point (since that’s all that separated them from second-place Philly).

As Knuble keeps reminding us, hockey is more than just speed skating. And while the recent rule changes and general opening up of the game make the NHL more of a young man’s world, there’s still room for the clever, calculating veteran. You could even say that with the club’s new emphasis on defense — and grinding out wins the working-class way — the Capitals are becoming more Knuble-like. That’s almost as big a surprise as Mike Knuble 218, Wayne Gretzky 188.