Mike Knuble joined the Boston Bruins’ season-opening trip through the Western Conference in 2002 not anticipating a career-changing year.
“More of the same,” he said.
Not a lot of ice time.
No power-play role.
Maybe one goal a month.
But then Sergei Samsonov underwent wrist surgery, and Knuble joined the Joe Thornton-Glen Murray line and scored 30 goals. And he hasn’t looked back since, posting six straight 20-goal seasons for Boston and Philadelphia, a streak the Washington Capitals hope continues this upcoming season.
“Sometimes you need the chance, but at the same time, you have to prove you’re worthy of the chance,” said Knuble, who visited Kettler Capitals Iceplex for the first time Tuesday during a break from house-hunting. “I stuck with [Thornton and Murray], and my career went in a different direction.”
The Caps signed Knuble, 37, to a two-year, $5.6 million contract during the opening day of free agency July 1.
Knuble could start the season on the Nicklas Backstrom-Alex Ovechkin line or with Brooks Laich and Brendan Morrison.
“We replaced a 13-goal scorer with a 27-goal scorer and got better as result,” general manager George McPhee said when the Caps signed Knuble.
Seen strictly as a role player early in his NHL career, Knuble has played his best hockey since his 30th birthday. He scored 50 goals in 353 games in his 20s; he has 165 goals in 467 games in his 30s.
“I definitely wasn’t one of those young guys where a lot was given,” he said. “But I wasn’t the player a lot of the young guys today are. I was a project at the age of 18. And then I was a professional project.”
Knuble didn’t turn pro until he was 22, following four years at Michigan. In the Detroit Red Wings’ organization, he was stuck behind great players like Brendan Shanahan and Vyacheslav Kozlov, which meant two seasons in the minors.
“It was a veteran-laden team, so as a young player, you felt stifled,” he said. “It takes guys some time to find their way. I got into my second year [with Adirondack], and the team was split [half Detroit and half Tampa Bay prospects]. Tampa guys were going up all the time. And they weren’t good players even on our team. You start to get frustrated.”
Knuble became an NHL regular during the 1997-98 season and got his name on the Stanley Cup when Detroit swept the Caps. Throughout his career, he has played with leaders like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Leetch and Wayne Gretzky during the Great One’s final season.
In the Caps’ locker room, Knuble will be looked at to replace the leadership void created by Sergei Fedorov’s departure. While acknowledging he’ll be vocal, Knuble said don’t expect him to sound the bugles and pound the drums at the first sign of trouble.
“I don’t want any misconceptions out there that I’ll be some ring leader and come in and ruffle everybody’s feathers because that’s not the deal,” he said. “I’m not a rabble-rouser and won’t be on the stump and be political. But it’s your duty as an older player to say things when the time comes.”
Johnson joins Penguins
Former Caps goalie Brent Johnson signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Johnson, 32, will compete with rookie John Curry to serve as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup.
“Brent’s an established guy in the NHL as a backup goalie, and he’s put up good numbers at different times in his career,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Johnson went 12-6-2 with a .908 save percentage for the Caps last year and was outperforming Jose Theodore when hip surgery ended his season in February. Johnson, who won 34 games in four seasons with Washington, became expendable with the emergence of Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.