Once a plumber, Knuble now NHL's most underrated player
In hockey parlance, it's not necessarily a good thing to be called a plumber.
Sure, it means you work hard, but on the other hand, people infer that you, well ... we're being honest here, right?
People think that you have no skills whatsoever.
Plumbers are third- and fourth-line muckers who aren't afraid to do the dirty work while getting no glory in return. They just pack their lunch pail, punch their time card, work their butt off on the ice, go home and then do it all over again the next day.
In one sense, the term plumber may not apply to Bruins winger Mike Knuble. After scoring 103 goals in four years at Michigan and 50 in two years in the AHL, Knuble existed in the world somewhere above your typical plumber, but below your star player.
But in another sense, Knuble may be viewed as the ultimate plumber. The plumber done good. The plumber emeritus. The plumber extraordinaire, whose picture hangs on the wall at plumber college and offers hope to future ice plumbers everywhere that they may not be destined for a life of goonery and six minutes of ice time per game.
Indeed, Knuble is the most underrated player in the NHL today, the spark on one of the most dangerous lines in the league with superstars Joe Thornton and Glen Murray.
But it wasn't always that way. Knuble was living the full life of a plumber for most of his first five seasons in the league. He won Stanley Cup rings in his first two seasons in the league with his home state Red Wings, about 150 miles from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he grew up. But Knuble lost out to now-famous Grind Liners Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper in the battle for playing time on Detroit's checking line, and was shipped to New York just before the 1998-99 season.
After scoring 15 goals in his first year with the Rangers while playing mostly with Petr Nedved and Niklas Sundstrom, Knuble netted just 27 over the next three seasons with the Rangers and Bruins, playing mostly on the third and fourth lines with enforcers like Andrei Nazarov and P.J. Stock when he was dressed.
Playing for Mike Keenan and Robbie Ftorek in Boston wasn't much of a help to Knuble's career, as both men viewed him generally as a worker bee on the checking lines who could chip in with occasional offense from that spot.
The big break came when first-line left winger Sergei Samsonov suffered a wrist injury last October after a blazing hot start in his usual spot next to superstars Thornton and Murray. When Sammy missed 74 games, the opportunity was there, and Knuble stepped up and seized it.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound winger scored 30 goals last season, reaching his milestone with two in the final game when his linemates were force-feeding him the puck to try to get him to that magic number.
Despite now being a 30-goal scorer and a regular member of one of the most feared lines in the game, Knuble hasn't forgotten his humble plumber roots and remains aware of his job description while playing on a skill unit with two of the league's top seven scorers from a year ago.
"I'm not the caliber of player that they are, but I just seem to complement them well and I do some things for them to keep their offense going," Knuble said. "I try to create room for them doing some of the work in the corners and trying to win pucks for them. It's been great for me personally. Joe had 101 points last year and Glen had 92, so I'm happy that their output hasn't suffered while playing with me. They've been able to do whatever they are going to do and kind of have me go along with them."
While we are talking about plumbers and all the plumbers-butt jokes that go along with them, let's be honest once again. Knuble is hardly what hockey coaches call a "passenger," someone just goes along for the ride. Both first-year head coach Mike Sullivan and fourth-year general manager Mike O'Connell point to Knuble as the team's most consistent player through the first 13 games.
"Mike showed that he was a capable scorer last year," Sullivan said. "He's probably been our most consistent player from day one of training camp. He's one of those guys who is undervalued by people away from our team, but who the players and the people who are close to our team realize how valuable he is. He does all the little things out there that help a line be successful and help a team be successful. He's certainly getting rewarded for it from a production standpoint, which is exciting for him."
"He's very consistent," O'Connell said. "He works hard in both ends of the rink and he has a very hard shot that surprised a lot of people with the way he can shoot the puck. He has a big body. And really he's probably been night in and night out our most consistent player. He has a good frame and good legs. He gets to the front of the net and then he's tough to move."
One of the problems with Knuble's first several years in Beantown was, in fact, the ease with which he was moved around to different lines. Knuble was kept on a short leash by Ftorek, who often blamed him when things didn't go well with their unit and would yank him off at the drop of the hat. This annoyed Knuble, but like a good plumber, he kept it to himself and just showed up for work every day.
It happened again to start this season, actually. With Samsonov 100 percent healthy again, he and Martin Lapointe were given the first crack at playing on the left wing with Thornton and Murray, but neither of them clicked like Knuble did last season. So after four games on the second line, Knuble was back with his magical linemates again. Life under the 35-year-old Sullivan has been more consistent than it was under 51-year-old Ftorek, and Knuble says having a younger coach who can relate to him has helped him stay positive and confident about his abilities to success on a No. 1 line.
Sullivan especially understands the Knubles of the world after an 11-year career as a defensive forward who scored just 54 goals in 709 games but was always among the hardest workers on his team.
"I can relate to him just through the experience that he's been through in the past," Sullivan said. "He's a guy who has been in and out of the lineup or has been on the back end of the lineup and was trying to earn a spot on the team or find his niche. Certainly last year he was given an opportunity to play on an offensive line and have the chance to produce on the offensive side of the equation, and to his credit he's shown that he's capable."
O'Connell says he was always aware that the offensive part of Knuble's game was there, but that the previous coaching staffs didn't always feel that was the best way to use him.
"To get to the 30-goal level was surprising, but I always thought that Mike was a good player," O'Connell said. "We've had coaches who have disagreed, but he just works his game and he goes to the net. He's responsible and he does the little things that you like in players. He's been very good for us as long as he's been here."
Knuble is thankful that Sullivan has been more patient with him than Ftorek was. He realizes that by working hard and making the most of his limited opportunities in the past, he was keeping himself prepared for when his big break finally came along.
"You need the right situation and you have to find that niche," Knuble said. "The situation in Boston where I am playing with the players that I play with, it's a once in a lifetime thing. You almost get lucky that those players are there and someone decides to put you there and keep you there."
Knuble's strength on his skates in the slot, a deceptively hard and accurate shot, and the fact that he's on pace for a 44-goal season may not keep him underrated for much longer.
"I do a lot of things pretty well, but I don't do anything great, so I'm not going to be highly rated in anything," he said. "I think that suits me fine. At least somebody is talking about you, I guess. Obviously, it's a positive term and it means that you can count on the same good things out of them all the time. It means that you are doing things well enough that somebody would notice to say that you are underrated, but you're effective without being the star."
Temporary title for Tallon
Bob Pulford's tenure as the permanent general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks may not last long, because Dale Tallon is being groomed to take over. Tallon was Chicago's director of player personnel from 1998-2002 before returning to the broadcast booth before last season. Pulford madeTallon his assistant this week to prepare him to take over the full-time GM duties down the road.
"It boils down to how quickly they feel comfortable with me and me becoming a well-rounded general manager," Tallon said on the Blackhawks' Web site. "If I grasp everything, all the ins and outs of the [collective bargaining agreement] and contracts, I have a chance to move up."
But Chicago released a statement late Friday clarifying what may have been an instance of Tallon talking outside of class without the permission of owner Bill Wirtz, who made it clear that Pulford is in charge of the Blackhawks and will not be simply a de facto general manager.
"I feel that Dale has the tools and the attributes to be a good general manager in the very near future," Wirtz said. "I feel that Dale has a great hockey mind and a keen eye for talent as his track record will verify. He has been responsible for drafting many of the young players who are currently playing on the Chicago Blackhawks and are in the Blackhawks system. Dale has had a long career in the National Hockey League as a player, broadcaster, and director of player personnel for the Blackhawks. During that time he has seen many players at all levels of competition. I have every confidence that Dale will do a great job for the Blackhawks both now and in the future.
"In saying that, I fully believe that Dale Tallon has all the qualities necessary to be a general manager and I fully expect him to be the next general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks."
Tallon will eventually inherit a team that is loaded with talented young players like Michael Leighton, Steve McCarthy, Igor Radulov, Tuomo Ruutu and Pavel Vorobiev. The 51-year-old Tallon finished his 10-year NHL career with the Blackhawks in 1980, then served as the team's radio and TV analyst for 16 seasons until heading to the front office in 1998.
Tallon will work much better with head coach Brian Sutter than did recently fired GM Mike Smith, who often clashed with Sutter about the Blackhawks' drafts and personnel moves. Smith's love for European players, and Russians in particular, contrasted with Sutter's preference for a classic, tough Canadian style. But considering that Quebec native Tallon had a respectable 568 penalty minutes in his 642-game NHL career, he and Sutter should see eye to eye about building the team around toughness and passion.
Putting out the fire
John Tortorella's decision to play John Grahame instead of Nikolai Khabibulin in Game 5 of the Lightning's second-round series against the Devils continues to come up. Tortorella was on the league's conference call Wednesday, and several questions were asked about The Bulin Wall being on the bench for Game 5. The Lightning didn't want to point the finger at Khabibulin for being down 3-1 in the series, but they felt that his play hadn't been up to his usually high standards. As a means to jump-start the team, Tortorella opted to go with Grahame, which proved to be a good move when he made 46 saves in a brilliant, but losing effort.
"We had a meeting after the season was over and talked for two hours," Tortorella said. "Nik was not happy about it, and I did not expect him to be. I explained to him there's a process in the decision. I did not back off the decision. In fact, if it happened again today in the same circumstance, I'd do it again. But I think Nik appreciated the explanation. He still isn't happy about it, but Nik is a pro. He's our No. 1 goalie and he has shown what he's all about here, and has learned by being the backbone of our team."
Tortorella is a demanding coach, but he is regarded by his players as a straight shooter. His forthright nature with Khabibulin immediately after making the decision and at every juncture since when the issue has come up may have avoided a potentially incendiary situation.
Don Waddell and Kevin Lowe chatted during Atlanta's Wednesday night game in Buffalo, and they probably weren't talking about the fall weather in their respective cities. Edmonton vice president of hockey operations Kevin Prendergast was reportedly in Portland last week to watch defenseman Braydon Coburn, the Thrashers' top pick in the 2003 draft, play with the WHL Winter Hawks. ... New Red Wings winger Steve Thomas either has some inside information or a case of the giggles. In a radio interview in Detroit, Stumpy hinted that the Wings would soon be making another deal, then laughed when the interviewer asked if it might be for Martin Straka. ... The Penguins are also trying to unload Milan Kraft, who has been a regular healthy scratch this season. ... Brian Boucher looks to be the odd man out in Phoenix, since he hasn't even been practicing with the Coyotes much lately with Zac Bierk getting the work as Sean Burke's backup. ... The Blackhawks' signing of Bryan Berard means Deron Quint is expendable and perhaps could be had for a draft pick. ... The Islanders are apparently offering Roman Hamrlik and Mark Parrish around in an attempt to trim some salary. Atlanta is a possible destination for Parrish. ... The Coyotes have scratched center Krys Kolanos lately and may ready to give up on him ever becoming the player they thought he was going to be before last year's serious concussion. ... The Devils appear to be the most likely destination for free-agent winger Sergei Berezin, who reportedly looked good in secret workouts with a WHA2 team. ... The Canadiens are said to be interested in acquiring a high-profile winger like Jarome Iginla or Jaromir Jagr, with Marcel Hossa, Richard Zednik, Patrick Brisebois and Andrei Markov among the names mentioned. ... Jaroslav Bednar is the latest European to take up regular residence in Mike Keenan's doghouse, and the Panthers would gladly move him to create a roster spot on the big club for Eric Beaudoin, Juraj Kolnik or Denis Shvidki, all of whom have put up good numbers with AHL San Antonio.
Mark Messier got his 1,850th point in his 1,691st game, while Gordie Howe played 1,767 games to reach that same number. ... Brendan Shanahan will play in his 1,200th NHL game Saturday against the Predators. Brett Hull is just five games away from that same mark. ... The Sharks have never won in Boston, posting an 0-7-3 record at the Garden and FleetCenter. ... The Blues have killed off 25 of 27 penalties at home, though they allowed Vancouver to score on one of its seven power-play chances Thursday. ... Joe Sakic scored his 512th career goal Thursday to tie Gilbert Perreault for 28th in NHL history . ... The Flyers have dominated the Capitals at home over the past six years, going 12-0-1 against Washington at the Wachovia Center since losing 3-2 on Jan. 31, 1998. ... Ilya Kovalchuk has scored in eight of the Thrashers' 13 games and has a point in all but two games. ... Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the three stars in every game he's played so far. Fleury is the youngest goalie in the NHL by 3 1/2 years, with Rick DiPietro being the next youngest. ... The Bruins are 0-1-2-1 at home, the first time since 1965 that they haven't won a home game in their first four tries. ... The Avalanche extended their NHL record with their 400th consecutive sellout on Thursday. The streak dates back to November of 1995, their second month in Denver, and 199 of the sellouts came at McNichols Sports Arena, while 201 have been at the Pepsi Center. ... Former San Jose first-round pick Jeff Friesen played in his 700th game Wednesday in the Devils' 3-2 win over the Sharks. ... The Kings also snapped a six-game winless streak (0-4-2) against the Lightning with Thursday's 1-0 overtime win in Tampa. ... Peter Forsberg's assist on Milan Hejduk's game-winning goal Thursday was the 500th helper of Foppa's career. ... Scott Stevens had two assists Thursday to reach 900 career points. ... The Florida Panthers will honor the World Series winning Florida Marlins on Friday, with the championship trophy, A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, Billy the Marlin and the Marlin Mermaids all slated to be on hand.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.