Grand opportunity for Caps’ Knuble

Veteran right wing set to play 1,000th NHL game Tuesday

Washington Capitals veteran forward Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets. It was the first time he's been scratched for performance reasons since the 2002-03 season. (Associated Press)Washington Capitals veteran forward Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets. It was the first time he’s been scratched for performance reasons since the 2002-03 season. (Associated Press)

Mike Knuble defies the traditional laws of hockey. Players aren’t supposed to score 20 goals in a season for the first time at age 30 and then do it eight more times.

But that has been life for Knuble, who struggled to find a place in the NHL for so long before transforming into one of the most consistent players in the past decade.

“It was like night and day,” he said. “I’ve lived two different careers throughout all this.”

Two different careers and winding paths that led Knuble to Tuesday, when he’s set to play his 1,000th NHL game as the Washington Capitals face the Nashville Predators. Knuble once wondered if he would make the lockout and 400 games — a benchmark for the league’s pension plan — but his unique road to this milestone proves that sometimes all a good player needs to be a great one is opportunity.

Being ‘worthy’

The Detroit Red Wings took Knuble with the 71st pick in the 1991 draft knowing he could score. In three subsequent seasons at the University of Michigan, he scored 96 goals, but by the time he turned pro the Red Wings had developed into a perennial power.

With the likes of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov leading the way, Detroit had a logjam of veteran forwards, so opportunities were short for Knuble.

“He came up at a tough time because we had a strong, strong team. It’s not easy for guys to break in,” legendary coach Scotty Bowman said in a phone interview last week. “He was really good coming off the wing and picking the far corner. I liked his style and everything. The unfortunate part is we had so many guys ahead of him.”

Knuble recalled his first game, March 26, 1997 against the Colorado Avalanche, when he got a taste of the rivalry in the form of brawls and a goalie fight. And his first goal, which came on a Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens — a dream scenario for the kid born in Toronto.

While Knuble won a Stanley Cup as a bit player for the Red Wings in 1998, it was a “battle” to carve out a niche in the NHL.

“You spend the first four or five years of your career trying to lock up a spot in the league and try to prove to everybody that you can play and that you’re worthy of them getting you another contract and worthy of them investing time and energy into you,” Knuble said.

It took a trade to the New York Rangers to open up a permanent spot for Knuble, and he scored 15 goals in 82 games in 1998-99 before a Broadway spending spree that included Theo Fleury meant a return to a reduced role.

“Suddenly you kind of got buried,” Knuble said. “You kind of got knocked back down.”

The Rangers dealt him to the Boston Bruins for Rob DiMaio, leading to a curious response from the man going to New York.

“Rob DiMaio, who I was traded for, they told him who he got traded for,” Knuble recalled. “They said my name and he said, ‘Who else?’ They were like, ‘No, that’s it, Rob. Sorry.’ Straight up.”

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