Before the Washington Capitals' second-round collapse last season against Tampa Bay, before another premature offseason guessing game of who's leaving and who's staying, and before coach Bruce Boudreau was assured of returning for yet another go, GM George McPhee re-signed Mike Knuble to a one-year extension.
The right winger couldn't ask for anything more. Really. Multiyear deals simply aren't prevalent for NHL players who were born in 1972. Besides, there was a point last season when another contract — at least with Washington — might have been iffy.
But Knuble's conditioning and moxie down the stretch spoke louder than his age.
"He really turned it on late in the season, when it's arguably the toughest time in the season," McPhee said Thursday after practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "He ended up with 24 goals and he had a lot  in the last 25 games. It was remarkable. We thought we'd try it again for another season. At this point, we'll do one-year deals and hope there are at least a couple more one-year deals."
Knuble said some players in his position are a little bit fearful, not knowing if they'll stick from year to year with each passing birthday. They worry about what they'll do when it's over, with the rest of their lives staring them in the face. But he takes a different approach with his 1,000th career NHL game looming (in December if he stays healthy).
"I look at this as an exciting time," said Knuble, 39, entering his 15th season overall and third with the Caps. "It's coming down to the end, and I'm still enjoying it. I'm thankful for it. I'm going to try to work hard this year to get another year. It's a great time."
He's having the time of his life playing with the Caps' vaunted "Young Guns" — Alexander Semin (27), Alex Ovechkin (26), Mike Green (25) and Nicklas Backstrom (23) — who actually are getting up in age themselves. That core has been together for four seasons now and doesn't require the same sort of hand-holding that might've been necessary in the past.
The younger players are beginning to see what Knuble has known for awhile: Time waits for no one, and it's running out on the Caps.
The days of imagining how good they'll be in the future while they learn and err in the present are over, extinguished by four consecutive flameouts in the playoffs.
"This group isn't that young anymore," Knuble said. "Hopefully a lot of them are maturing and starting to realize. Some of their buddies back home are winning Stanley Cups and [the Caps' players] are standing here empty-handed saying 'I want one of those.'
"Time is moving on and time moves on with your team, too. The salary cap and contracts affect player movement. Our superstars are in the prime of their careers. What happens if one of them gets hurt? That huge window starts to close."
Knuble's window seemed closed before it fully opened, as he spent the first half of his career fighting for ice time.
Drafted by the Red Wings in 1991, he was a third/fourth-liner with Detroit, the New York Rangers and Boston before enjoying extensive playing time during a breakout season with the Bruins in 2002-03. He had 59 points in 75 games, after failing to top 35 points in any previous season. That was Knuble's first campaign with at least 20 goals (30) and he has scored 20-plus in every season since.
"He got put in a situation and things started to happen for him," McPhee said. "I think he realized he's never going be a playmaker or skill guy, but his forte would be getting to the front of the net and banging in ugly goals.
"He's become really good at it, so good that we have other players watching him and trying to figure out how he does it," McPhee said. "He's made a good living out of learning how to do something like that, but he has to play with the top players to do it."
There's certainly no shortage of them on the Caps' roster, whether Knuble is on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, or spends time playing with Marcus Johansson, newcomer Troy Brouwer and others. No matter the combinations, Knuble is determined to enjoy the experience and the expectations as the Caps try to fulfill their promise and he tries to keep up. For at least another season.
"We're all just cheating time," he said.
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