NHL Free Agency: Will Mike Knuble Return to the First Line with a New Team?

Robert Wood@@bleachRWreachrCorrespondent IJuly 20, 2012

UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 13: Mike Knuble #22 of the Washington Capitals skates against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on March 13, 2012 in Uniondale, New York. The Capitals defeated the Islanders 5-4 in the shootout.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Mike Knuble needs to play on the first line to succeed in the NHL

He first proved this theory in 2002-03, during his third season with the Boston Bruins.  He starred on the top line with Joe Thornton and Brian Rolston. 

He further proved it when he moved on to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005-06.  Knuble played with the Flyers through 2008-09, and excelled while playing alongside first line forwards Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter, among others. 

And most recently, Mike Knuble succeeded on the top line in Washington with center Nicklas Backstrom and left wing Alexander Ovechkin.  In fact, Knuble was signed by the Caps before the 2009-10 season for the sole purpose of adding a hardworking power forward to balance the finesse and skill of his line mates. 

Mike Knuble has thrived in this role. From 2002-11, Mike Scored 20+ goals in eight consecutive seasons, for a total of 218 goals and 419 points in that period. 

But his production plummeted last season, his 15th in the NHL.  The 40-year-old reached the 1,000-game milestone, but began to show his age.  In 72 games, he scored only six goals with 18 total points, and he was demoted from the top line in the process.  Knuble suffered a 34-game goalless drought, and was a healthy scratch for a total of 10 games, beginning in late February.  He had his lowest time-on-ice per game since the 2001-02 season. 

Once in the playoffs, however, Mike Knuble showed signs of life.  He scored two goals and added one assist, despite his diminished role as well as being a healthy scratch for the first three games of the postseason.  Mike's one assist came on the series-winning goal against Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.  Knuble now has 14 goals and 30 points in 65 career playoff games.  

The turmoil of last season occurred during a contract year for Knuble.  As a result, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee has said he will not re-sign the veteran forward.  Now Mike Knuble must test the open market. 

But will any team sign him?  Yes.  Knuble is a respected veteran with playoff experience.  Plus, as he recently told The Washington Post, he still wants to play hockey: 

I’m open to playing. I’d love to play. I feel good; my body feels good and I’ve got nothing nagging me...Mentally too, I still enjoy playing the game and I still enjoy coming out to the rink every day and I enjoy being around the other players and I think that that’s half the battle -- wanting to be there -- as you get older.

More importantly, will any team be willing to play Mike Knuble on their top line, where he is most likely to succeed? 

Here are a few possible candidates:

  • Carolina Hurricanes.  The Canes need to score more goals, and Knuble’s presence could give them a spark.  Mike would mesh well with fellow veterans Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen.   
  • Edmonton Oilers.  This young, high-flying team could use more veteran leadership.  However, the team recently signed power forward Ryan Smyth to a contract extension, and the 36-year-old played well last season alongside Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. 
  • New York Islanders.  Another potent offensive team like the Oilers, but the Islanders are lacking a power forward on the top line.  And Knuble’s voice in the locker room would help this young bunch grow up in a hurry. 
  • Colorado Avalanche.  Young and loaded with talent, the Avs could refine their offensive attack with Mike Knuble on the first line with Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly. 
  • San Jose Sharks.  The best fit for Mike, and also the best chance at another Stanley Cup title.  The San Jose Sharks have plenty of offensive firepower and have made numerous playoff appearances, but they lack the hard-work and toughness required to win in the playoffs.  Knuble provides just that, and he could make a top line with former line mate Joe Thornton and left wing Martin Havlat a force to be reckoned with. 

Mike Knuble’s production may have declined in 2011-12, but an NHL team could be handsomely rewarded by giving him one more shot at playing on the top line.