When the Washington Capitals were trailing the Florida Panthers 5-2 in early December and looked more than out of the game, Mike Knuble stood up in the locker room during intermission and challenged his teammates. They fell just short of tying the score after a furious third-period comeback.
But for the past three games, the Caps didn't even have the luxury of motivation from Knuble, who was forced to the press box as a healthy scratch. That the 39-year-old hadn't scored since that December night in Sunrise, Fla., coupled with his minus-14 rating, paved the way for his eviction from the lineup.
"We follow stats, and he hasn't got a point in the last 11 games," Caps coach Dale Hunter said. "He's played, and he's been a minus player, so basically that's what it was."
Knuble adds much more than just goals and assists for the Caps, who haven't won with him out of the lineup.
"Stats aren't everything. And having a good, veteran guy like Mike that everyone looks up to and he's a role model, it's just a great guy to have," forward Jay Beagle said. "Not only does he talk in the room, but you watch him on the ice and he's always working hard. He's a great guy to try to model your game after."
It has reached the point where Knuble, an alternate captain, is showing visible frustration about his uncertain status. He talked of facing "reality," which could mean a change of scenery with the trade deadline Feb. 27.
"You can handle it a number of ways. You can be content and just sit there and let things happen as they may or you can force an issue," he said Tuesday. "You have to kind of decide that two weeks before the trade deadline. If a player is not going to be used or in the near future, if you don't have plans, then that player probably wouldn't want to be there.
"That's how we are in our league. You want to go somewhere where you're going to play and you're going to contribute to the team. And if you can't do it in one place, then you've got to go."
Caps general manager George McPhee declined comment through a team spokesman.
Plenty of contenders likely would salivate over the possibility of adding a grizzled veteran with a Stanley Cup ring and the ability to set screens on the power play, bang in goals from around the crease and kill penalties.
Plus, Knuble brings leadership.
"He's been in the league a long time," defenseman Jeff Schultz said. "Everybody on this team respects him and when he does stand up, everybody is listening and taking in what he's saying because he's been there in all situations and knows the right way to do things."
That has been lost on the Caps in recent days as Knuble was a mainstay on the ice following morning skates, doing drills with assistant coach Dean Evason instead of preparing to play. It was an even deeper drop for Knuble, who has spent long stretches of the season on the fourth line seeing limited minutes.
Instead, the likes of Beagle, Keith Aucoin and Joel Rechlicz played. Those three combined for zero points in two regulation defeats and one shootout defeat.
But Hunter bristled at the notion that Knuble's missing leadership contributed to the Caps' three-game skid.
"You're always going to miss leadership — it's part of the game," he said. "You have to have other leaders step up and play. I don't think that that's the issue."
Knuble's absence does leave a significant void, though Hunter said the veteran will get back into the lineup "eventually." Whether that's Friday at the Florida Panthers, or perhaps for another team, remains to be seen.
"You're competitive. We're all competitive, and we want to play and we want to contribute," Knuble said. "If it's not irritating you and you're not thinking about your options, then you might as well stop playing."
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