Mike Knuble most likely is not in the habit of reading his own press clippings, let alone fan blogs or message boards. But if he was, it’s safe to assume he’d feel a little underappreciated.
After all, when you are among the leaders on your team each year in offensive categories and power-play production, posting no fewer than 24 goals or 55 points in three years of service, ranking among the top-10 league leaders in power play goals in 2007-2008, and remaining a durable, consistent player, you’d think fans would want you to stick around.
Since the summer, there has been a ground swell of chatter in both the hockey media and amongst fans on blogs and message boards that Knuble’s $2.8 million salary cap number might be put to better use shoring up areas of need on the Flyers roster. In fact, there are times when it seems many fans would love to pack the lumbering power forward’s bags for him, drive him to the Market East bus terminal, and toss him under the first Greyhound bus out of town.
How does one of Philadelphia’s most productive offensive forwards over the previous three seasons go from hot-diggity-dog to plain ol’ dog dirt in Philadelphiafandom?
As Knuble approaches the back end of his career, there seems to be an anxiety amongst many Philadelphia fans and observers that the 36-year-old right wing might run out of gas while outfitted in an orange and black Reebok jersey. Never mind that as a player, Knuble has only gotten better with age. A late bloomer, No. 22’s first voyage across the 50-point mark came as a 31-year old. He has consistently posted similar numbers four of his last five seasons.
During his time in Philadelphia, Knuble has been the closest thing to an immovable force the Flyers have had since big John LeClair opened an office in front of opposing netminders over a decade ago. Knuble plays a similar style, scoring many of his goals in close as defenders struggle with his size and strength. With a new emphasis on team speed, Knuble is one of the few big body forwards on the Flyers roster capable of creating problems for opposing defensemen in close.
Perhaps it’s the specter of Leclair’s dramatic physical decline toward the end of his career in Philadelphia that has so many people spooked, creating a sense of urgency amongst fans for the Flyers to sell while Knuble still holds value as an asset. But the facts point to Knuble being quite durable, missing just 25 games over the last five seasons, averaging 77 games played per season over that time span.
There could be a myriad of reasons, both logical and illogical, that have Flyers observers wishing for another right wing to fill Knuble’s spot on the Flyers bench. However, it’s quite possible the sudden mob of Knuble bag-packers can be explained in two words—Brian Campbell.
As free agency approached this past offseason, it suddenly dawned on Flyers observers that—for the first time in years—Philadelphia was in no position to take part in the July 1 feeding frenzy that is the start of the NHL free agency period. For the first time in recent memory, Philadelphia was in no position to sit at the table with other free agency serial spenders such as the New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The result of past offseason spending habits and free agent windfalls has understandably conditioned Flyers fans to expect marquee signings each summer. If free agency were similar to say, sport-eating, the free-spending Flyers would contend for the Wing Bowl crown year in and year out.
So, on July 1, 2008, imagine the horror of the Philadelphia faithful as Flyers management heaved up Glen Metropolit, Aaron Asham, Ossi Vaananen, Danny Syvret, Nate Raduns, and Janne Niskala before finishing their first plate of wings.
As top-tier unrestricted free agents began signing dotted lines in 29 other NHL cities—especially coveted free agent Brian Campbell, who landed in Chicago—Flyers fans dejectedly picked the chunks that were Patrick Hersely and Ned Lukacevic out of their collective playoff beards.
The Flyers' inability to participate in the Brian Campbell sweepstakes was unfortunate, but hardly unforeseen. The previous summer’s spending spree that saw the team acquire Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen transformed Philadelphia into an Eastern Conference finalist, dramatically reversing the fortunes of a team that finished last in the NHL standings in 2006-2007.
But that progress came at a price, pushing Flyers management up against the constraints of the NHL salary cap.
Despite shedding the salaries of several players through attrition, long-term injury designations, trades, and retirement, the need to re-sign key unrestricted and restricted Flyers free agents such as Martin Biron, Mike Richards, Joffry Lupul, and Jeff Carter all but assured Philadelphia would be quiet on July 1.
It is hardly a coincidence that people began to take note of Knuble’s salary-cap number (set at $2.8 million for 2008) in the days leading up to free agency and during the post-mortem afterward. The Flyers entered the free-agency period with its blue line as the top priority, but failed to land a marquee player to solidify its top four on the defensive unit.
In the minds of many, Knuble’s $2.8 million approached nearly half of what was needed to bring Brian Campbell to Philadelphia, suddenly making Knuble an expensive luxury rather than an invaluable component of the Flyers attack. Age catches up with every professional athlete at some point, and with Knuble approaching his 252nd birthday in dog years, some fans have come to see him as the odd man out on a team loaded with kids.
But the fact remains that, at $2.8 million per year, Mike Knuble has been a bargain. Of the 30 NHL players in his salary range—between $2.5 million and $3 million annual salary—only five players have been more productive than Knuble in total points last season. Of those 30 players, only Henrik Zetterberg had scored more power-play goals (16) than Knuble in 2007-2008.
What’s more, Knuble is an unrestricted free agent heading into the 2009-2010 season, adding further incentive to perform well as he enters into what may be a negotiation for his final pro contract.
Based on his consistency over the last five years, along with his durability and the added incentive of entering a contract year, there is no reason to expect anything other than a productive year from Mike Knuble. However, as an affordable, productive, power-play specialist, it is all but assured that his name will surface as a potential rental player in trade rumors throughout the season.
In a league where power-play production is at a premium, it's unlikely Mike Knuble is going anywhere this season, with the Flyers' aspirations set at moving beyond the Eastern Conference Finals.
Whether Knuble will be in Philadelphia next season is a different story.