NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At 38 years old last season, Mike Knuble was a fixture on the Washington Capitals’ top line, playing with the two faces of the franchise, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Even early this season at 39, Knuble was a regular presence on the top two lines. Then it happened, a move to the fourth line alongside fellow vets Matt Hendricks and Jeff Halpern. And with it came a new role and a major shift for a man who has made a living scoring goals and playing big minutes.
“It is an adjustment. That’s the way it’s looking like it’s going to be,” the right wing said last week. “But you can take pride in that every night. Every time you’re on the ice is a chance to do something good and a chance to contribute to your team.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau bristles at the notion of Knuble being demoted to the fourth line, pointing to the more balanced minutes the Capitals have featured. Knuble went into Tuesday’s game at the Nashville Predators averaging 15:02, sixth-most among forwards, thanks largely to power-play time.
But it’s not the same as being one of the top options for offense.
“Does every guy on our bench want to be on the ice more? Of course. You want to be out there as much as you can,” Knuble said. “And the trick is to realize every second you’re out there is very valuable, and you’ve got to try and do the best you can and try to contribute to your team.”
On a team where depth is preached as a major advantage — and opportunity for more than just Ovechkin and Co. — Knuble, Hendricks and Halpern have performed well. That means being efficient, wearing opponents down and creating energy.
“You’ve got to have almost a different priority coming into the game,” Knuble said. “It might not always be about getting a goal or an assist or something like that, it’s trying to swing some momentum, trying to make somebody play in their own end.”
For someone like Knuble, a veteran of 984 NHL games, the adjustment might be something he thinks about, but he makes it look easy according to teammates.
“He’s good on any line you put him on. He doesn’t have to change his game a whole lot,” Hendricks said. “I think when he plays with very skilled guys, his game creates opportunity for them — creates goals for himself or he puts himself in the right areas to score goals. He’s a gritty, strong player that doesn’t get knocked off the puck.”
The opportunities for offense just aren’t the same. Knuble had two goals, five assists and a minus-1 rating through 15 games.
Not playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom, or even center Marcus Johansson and forward Alexander Semin, Knuble understands he might not pile up the points in the same way. Instead, Knuble said his value comes by finishing checks and contributing to a hard-working line.
And while he is not on pace to extend his 20-goal-season streak to nine, Knuble accepts his role and is willing to do whatever is necessary.
“I’m not naive to the fact that it’s a young guys’ game. I’m very thrilled to be able to still have a chance to contribute and still be on a solid team and on a great team with the potential to do a lot of great things,” Knuble said. “If that’s going to be the role, and that’s what I have to do, I have no problem doing it. I think we all believe that we have a chance to achieve something great here, and so that makes the whole thing easier to accept and easier to deal with on a daily basis.”