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Mike Knuble, at 40, happy to be back on ice with Flyers
Mike Knuble's fall from key contributor to role player with the Washington Capitals came all too fast. Accustomed to playing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and putting up 20-goal seasons, last season he was reduced to a fourth-line role or pushed out of the lineup altogether.
"In Washington I was in a certain role for a long time and then it switched a lot, so that was pretty hard to take," Knuble said in a phone interview this week. "You come into a team, you know what your role is there so you're hoping that you do the best you can when you're playing with it."
That's where Knuble is at now after signing a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, who needed another forward after learning left wing Scott Hartnell is out at least a month with a broken bone in his left foot. Knuble knows he has to be "realistic" about his place on the Flyers once Hartnell is healthy, but for now he's enjoying being back in the NHL at the age of 40.
"I think as a player now you've got to be ready for anything," said Knuble, who returns to Washington to face the Caps on Friday night. "I think I truly am ready for anything, whether it's a few minutes or substantial minutes, some penalty killing, some power play, no penalty killing, no power play. If it's just regular shifts, you've got to be ready for everything and I think I am at that point where I am."
Knuble knew before the start of free agency last summer that he wouldn't be back with the Caps. But the right wing couldn't get a contract before the lockout started and had only a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings once it was over.
Detroit, with a plethora of forwards already on the roster, didn't have room for Knuble.
"It was just good to get out there and start playing," he said. "You wanted to show people that you were out and about, and now I'm looking to play. I came out of that week with a good week of practice. They made no illusions or any promises of anything, which I respected and expected, that they weren't going to suddenly open the doors for me."
Knuble signed a professional tryout agreement with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, the team with which he skated during the lockout. After one game and one assist Jan. 21, "things happened pretty quickly" once Hartnell got hurt.
By Jan. 24, Knuble had a deal with the Flyers and soon after joined the team in Florida. He has one assist in three games, playing in all situations. He's expected to start Friday night's game at the Caps on the second line with Matt Read and Sean Couturier.
Read and Couturier weren't around when Knuble spent four years with the Flyers before signing in Washington. In fact, counting Hartnell, only five players are still in Philadelphia from Knuble's first stint there.
Knuble even has a different number, since defenseman Luke Schenn has his trademark No. 22. The veteran is wearing No. 9, the number his son Cole had with the Little Capitals.
Even with a different number and plenty of new teammates, there's a comfort level for Knuble in returning to Philadelphia.
"It means something to me to play here. It's a city, a spot to play where it means something," Knuble said. "You come in, you know the staff, they're going to remember your likes and your dislikes and you kind of just pick up where you left off. So in that respect it's very comfortable. Some paint on the walls has changed, they've repainted some things, but other than that it's pretty much the same setup."
Knuble has a few more gray hairs than before, but he had nothing but positive things to say about his three years with the Caps. Two seasons he scored 20 goals, and even last year's disappointment didn't sour him on the experience.
"Guys were asking me, 'What about Washington?' I said it's a great place to play," Knuble said. "I don't have any regrets playing there or anything negative to say about it. I was treated well, I was treated for the most part very fairly and people move on, teams move on. That's just kind of what happened in my situation."
The reverence for Knuble from ex-teammates speaks to how big of an impact he had within the Caps' locker room. Even when he was frustrated with a lack of playing time, Knuble didn't let that affect his relationships with fellow players.
"Mike's one of the greatest people I've played with, and I say people because he's a great person," forward Matt Hendricks said. "To have played with him for two years and be under his leadership, I've learned a lot from Mike and I'm grateful to call him a friend."
Though it was bittersweet for Caps players to know he wasn't going to be back, there were no such mixed emotions when they heard Knuble signed with the Flyers.
"I certainly think he can still help a team and when I saw that he signed I was very excited for him," said forward Brooks Laich, who called Knuble a consummate professional. "At 39, 40 years old he's one of the most fit guys on the team and his passion was still there to play. I also believe that Mike understands if he can help a team he would play, but if he was going to hinder a team he wouldn't play. He's got that level of respect for the game and for his teammates."
While the Caps could use a veteran voice like Knuble, he was obviously not in their plans for this season. It's uncertain what the Flyers' plans for him will be a couple of months from now, and coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Paul Holmgren haven't spelled out what they expect from him.
"I think I'm smart enough to know I'm just going to be for everything: move up, then move down, move around," Knuble said. "And hopefully be able to play some different roles for them and fill in some gaps that they feel they have."
Knuble's wife and three children will remain in Michigan for the rest of the season and visit when the schedule permits. The family man called it "not an optimal situation."
"I don't take that part of it lightly: It's a difficult thing," he said. "But we'll try to do our best to make it work and I feel like we can."
Just having a job and the continuation of his NHL career makes it a worthwhile sacrifice. Being back where he called home for four years eases the adjustment.
"I know my way around, we have friends in the area," Knuble said. "I got lots of people to make me some dinners here in the next couple weeks."
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