Monday, February 8, 2010

Flyers Miss Knuble

Last season, the Flyers were one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL. They had more 20-goal scorers than they knew what to do with. Defense was that team's weakness, not scoring. Yet this season, the Flyers have been pretty much the polar opposite. The team with all those goal-scorers — Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere, etc. — can't bury the puck, while the defense has actually been quite solid. Yes, the team lost 25 goals in the form of Joffrey Lupul, and yes, Jeff Carter isn't catching any goaltenders off-guard with those tough angle shots after a breakout 2008-09, but those don't explain such a precipitous drop-off, especially with the likes of Claude Giroux and Jame van Riemsdyk expected to pick up some of the slack. No, the Flyers have had so many stretches where they've struggled to score because they don't have that immovable object in front of the crease. They don't have a John LeClair. More appropriate, they don't have a Mike Knuble.

I watched Knuble yesterday. He scored the game-winner against the Penguins in overtime to give the Caps a 5-4 victory, doing it in familiar fashion — planting himself in front of the net and poking home a rebound off the post from an Alexander Ovechkin (who had a hat trick) rocket. It was Knuble's 21st goal of the season, just one behind Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who are tied for the Flyers' team lead. Las season, he scored 27 goals for the Flyers — 29 the year before, 24 the year before that and 34 in his first season in orange and black. He played in all 82 games the past two seasons for Philadelphia. He worked hard every single shift. But most importantly, Mike Knuble gave the Flyers that guy that every good team needs: the guy who gets in front of the net, screens the goaltender, can't be moved and makes the offense go.

It's no coincidence that Simon Gagne is struggling to find the back of the net and the Flyers have a very potent and highly rated power play, but one that lacks consistency. Playing alongside Gagne and Richards, Knuble made shots tougher for goalies to see, banged home rebounds, fought for position, gave his linemates and point men shooting lanes and traffic all at the same time. His dirty work made everyone better. And he would have made this team better.

Sadly, thanks to the salary cap era the Flyers are now forced to live in, Philadelphia couldn't find a way to bring Knuble back. Not after the Pronger trade. Not after needing to find a goaltender, sure up the checking line and keep the young nucleus intact. Knuble wanted to come back. The Flyers wanted him to come back. But the economics didn't work.

Now the Flyers are stuck without that man, and that's as big a reason as any that a once lethal scoring team cannot find any consistency on the scoreboard. The Flyers have asked Scott Hartnell to take over that role and Hartnell has tried, but that's not his game. Not really. Hartnell is a shooter and an agitator. Yes, he'll get garbage goals around the crease, but he's not the force in front of the net. When he gets nudged in the crease, he gets moved, often right off his skates (and often into the goaltender), unlike Knuble, who couldn't be supplanted without a running start. He does his best, but it's just not quite good enough. It's not Mike Knuble in front of that net, and the opposition knows it.

It's really a shame when you think about it. The guy wanted to be here. The team wanted him to be here. The fans wanted him to be here. But he became a casualty of the business. And in a twist of fate, it is the Flyers who are suffering, while all Knuble has done is continue to do what he's done his entire career — sit in front of the net, make the opposing goaltender's life a living hell, and refuse to move, all while scoring goals himself and helping his (considerably awesome) teammates score themselves — and for all his hard work, he's been rewarded with playing on a line with one of the best two players in the world on the best team in hockey. Not a bad consolation prize for him.

More than anything else, the Flyers miss Mike Knuble's presence on the ice, and maybe even his presence off it.

BallHype: hype it up!

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