Washington Capitals fans — and all who have watched Mike Knuble over the past eight-plus seasons — know his penalty-killing ability and defensive prowess are big parts of his game. But when he was just starting out with the Detroit Red Wings, Knuble was known more for his shot than anything else.
Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman reflected last week on a guy he coached for 62 regular-season and three more playoff games in 1997 and 1998.
“When he first came up, he was more trying to round out his game, you know,” Bowman said in a phone interview Saturday. “He was learning the defensive part of the game, so he was concentrating [on that]. In college he was a good scorer. And then he comes up to the NHL, of course, he’s got a different kind of game.”
Knuble scored 96 goals in 114 games at the University of Michigan. But he wanted to put together a multidimensional game.
“I thought he had an upside for scoring because he had a good shot — he always had a good shot,” Bowman said. “He was just trying to find his niche whether he was going to be a two-way player.
He wasn’t going to be just a scorer, so he worked on defense. He became a reliable player.”
Bowman lamented how a veteran Red Wings team prevented Knuble from breaking through and cementing a spot as a young player. But playing alongside guys like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov taught him some important lessons.
“There was just a lot of Hall of Fame-type guys there. So you learn to kind of kept your mouth shut and your eyes open and learned how they played on the ice and learned how they took care of themselves off the ice,” Knuble said. “It was great guys to be around — you learn how hard you had to work and how hard they did; even though they were playing every night they’d be in the gym working out. … It was just great experience for a young player.”
“I didn’t talk to him — maybe two sentences the whole time,” Knuble said. “That was just a well-oiled machine that just ran itself. The players ran it and they knew what they were doing. They were
all veteran guys. It was a great way to come in and be associated with it. I’d like to think it probably helped me out at times being associated with that group a little bit being a young player.”
But even he struggled to come up with another player whose career path was similar to Knuble. Eventually he settled on Marty Lapointe — a natural scorer who became a responsible two-way player.
But Lapointe finished with 991 games played, nine short of the magical mark Knuble will reach Tuesday night when the Caps host the Nashville Predators.
Knuble played just 353 games before the age of 30 and will get No. 647 since that time Tuesday. That remarkable arc includes a lockout that meant Knuble spending a season playing in Sweden — and needing to adjust his game to the so-called new NHL.
That just makes his reaching 1,000 games all the more impressive.