When he arrived in Boston, Knuble was a fringe NHLer looking for a way to make a lineup on a consistent basis. But on Tuesday, when the right wing plays in his 1,000th NHL regular season game as the Washington Capitals host the Nashville Predators at Verizon Center, he will do so having established himself as one of the most consistent power forwards in the past decade.
Knuble, now 39 and a father of three, has recorded eight consecutive 20-goal seasons heading into this year’s campaign. He has scored 271 goals, with 221 coming after his 30th birthday.
“It’s like night and day,” Knuble said. “I’ve lived two different careers through all this.”
Chosen by Detroit in the fourth round of the 1991 entry draft, the Michigan native would break into the league at the height of the Red Wings’ supremacy in the latter part of the decade. Knuble’s name is etched into the Stanley Cup and painted on the wall at Joe Louis Arena for his part in 53 games in the 1997-98 season, but given the veteran-laden Detroit roster at the time, it wasn’t the ideal situation for a young kid looking to carve out a niche.
A trade to New York the following year would give Knuble his first taste of a regular role. He recorded just 15 goals and 35 points in 82 games that year, but it was with the Rangers that he was introduced to veterans such as John MacLean and Adam Graves, who taught him to go to the net and be willing to shoot the puck from anywhere — habits that would suit him well in the future.
The Rangers added prominent free agents that offseason and Knuble found himself knocked back down the depth chart in New York during the 1999-2000 season. After the trade to Boston later that year, Knuble had to prove himself all over again as a fourth-liner, worrying whether he would reach the 400-game plateau for the league’s pension plan before the lockout arrived.
“You spend five or six years trying to find your way,” Knuble said, “trying to lock a spot in the league, try to prove to everybody you can play, that you’re worthy of them giving you another contract and them investing time and energy into you.”
It would be in 2002-03, at age 30, that Knuble finally began to carve out his place in the NHL. When winger Sergei Samsonov was sidelined by a wrist injury, his absence left a vacancy on the Bruins’ top line alongside Joe Thornton and Glen Murray that Knuble eventually got a chance to fill. He finished that season with 30 goals and 59 points.
“They changed my career,” Knuble said of Thornton and Murray. “After you do it once, they want to see if you’re a flash in the pan, but suddenly you find yourself in better positions to succeed, better linemates, power play. . . . I think coaches for the most part have done that, put me in a situation, with good linemates, good power-play groups and a chance to succeed, and I’ve been able to come through for them.”
In the seven seasons since, Knuble has recorded no fewer than 40 points in any single year as he’s made stops in Philadelphia and now Washington, where on Tuesday he will become the 269th player in NHL history to reach the 1,000-game mark.
“It’s an honor to get 1,000 in this league; not a lot of guys do,” said Coach Dale Hunter, who reached the mark as a player. “It’s a credit to him. He kept being persistent and he figured out how to play in the National Hockey League.”
Knuble, an alternate captain, consistently attributes his success to being a willing and able complement to star players by taking care of the dirty jobs on the ice — whether fishing the puck out of a corner or taking cross checks to the back as he searches for rebounds and deflections in front of opposing nets. It’s a punishing way to forge a career in the NHL — and he has started to show some signs of slowing this year, with just three goals and six assists in 31 games — but it has been Knuble’s identity since those days in Boston.
“He’s played 1,000 tough games,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It hasn’t been an easy road for him, no one gave him anything, but I can’t think of a guy who’s worked harder to get to this point.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green, who has missed 17 consecutive games with a strained right groin muscle, skated for the first time since Dec. 8 on Monday and was out on the ice for roughly 35 minutes. . . . Jay Beagle (concussion) has been cleared for full participation in practices, including contact. . . . The NHL’s holiday roster freeze began Monday night and lasts until Dec. 27. Teams cannot make trades during the freeze, but recalls from the American Hockey League are permitted.