"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. 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." - Mike Knuble, 11/15/11
Over the course of his fifteen-year (and counting) NHL career, Mike Knuble has made a name for himself as a guy who works hard and excels alongside some of the League's best, whether it was Joe Thornton in Boston or Simon Gagne in Philadelphia or Alex Ovechkin right here in Washington. His game is simple but effective, and not for the faint of heart - go to the net, take the punishment, and get the dirty goals. Over the last eight seasons he's scored at least twenty goals playing exactly this way, regardless of team and in spite of the fact that he's nearing forty-years-old.
That streak, however, is in jeopardy - and it's because he's no longer being used the right way.
Knuble came into camp in incredible shape, even lapping those ten years his junior in the oft-discussed conditioning drills and looking poised to continue his steady, consistent production for yet another season. Even with the acquisition of Troy Brouwer, a younger, more physical forward, there was no question that Knuble deserved a spot in the top six - even if he wasn't alongside his usual mates in Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
And if there was a question of whether he deserved that role, he answered it early on with an uncharacteristically hot start. In fact, through the team's first eleven games Knuble was keeping pace with the Backstroms, the Ovechkins and the Johanssons, racking up points alongside the team's best offensive players with seven.
But then as October drew to a close and the team's hot start cooled, the line shuffling began and Knuble suddenly found himself not only out of the top six but shockingly on the team's fourth line. His minutes took a huge hit, dropping by almost two minutes a night; as a result, his offensive production didn't just decline - it fell completely off a cliff. To date, Knuble has registered just seven points on the season (and only two goals), well off the pace of a twenty-goal scorer - and not a single point was scored after November 5. Through the first eleven games, he was a plus-two; in the last eleven, a minus-seven.
The reason for the dropoff is pretty clear. Not only has his ice time dipped dramatically, and not only has the collective skill level of his linemates dropped (with all due respect to Matt Hendricks and Jeff Halpern), but his demotion to the fourth line has taken away the type of play that made him effective in the first place.
On a line with snipers, shooters and playmakers, his job was to go to the net and collect rebounds from the shots that his linemates would fire on net; when you've got Ovechkin shooting or Backstrom making a sneaky play from behind the net or along the boards, the chances are going to be there for some offense, some rebound goals and some ugly goals and the kind of goals we've grown accustomed to seeing from Knuble. Alongside grinders like Halpern and Hendricks, however, the style of game changes. Offensive chances diminish, and the goal of the line shifts from generating offense to keeping the other team from scoring by hemming them into their own zone.
It's never really been clear why Bruce Boudreau chose to not only move Knuble to the fourth line but keep him there indefinitely. And while Knuble's been a good soldier, vowing to contribute no matter what his role, he's clearly been frustrated at times. It's understandable, too, because given the way Knuble produced early on in the season (and the way Brouwer's season started, although he's definitely improved and settled in since), there was no reason - at least to the outside eye - to move a veteran like him, whose best play comes from skating with the best players, to a line where he isn't given a chance to succeed. Even with the team's recent struggles, only once has he found himself back on the top line - and he was bumped back down just as quickly as the promotion came.
Of course one could make the argument that by playing reduced minutes now, it increases the likelihood that Knuble will have a bit more left in the tank for the playoffs; up until this year, the depth simply wasn't there for him to be slotted in a lower profile, lower mileage role.
Still, there's no denying that he has always been a more productive player when skating with the high-skill players - and has often served as the defensive conscience for his linemates, as well, an area in which Brouwer is not quite as adept. The logical move would seem to be to at least put him on the second line alongside Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson, and to slot Mathieu Perreault back onto the fourth line where he's proven to be surprisingly effective.
With the Caps in a bit of a tailspin there's really nothing to lose, and the team is simply better when he's playing a top-six role. In fact, in games where he's had at least fifteen minutes of ice time, the Caps are 8-2-0; under fifteen minutes, they're 3-7-1. Coincidence? Perhaps a bit. But that doesn't change the fact that he's simply better when used in a more high profile role; the question now, is, will new head coach Dale Hunter agree... or keep Knuble where he is?