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Lined up to succeed

Once an afterthought, Knuble hits his stride

WILMINGTON -- When Mike O'Connell traded for forward Mike Knuble in March of 2000, he had to swap his general manager hat for that of a salesman. Pat Burns was behind the Bruins bench at the time of the deal, which sent Rob DiMaio to the Rangers, and he was followed by Mike Keenan and then Robbie Ftorek before current coach Mike Sullivan took over. None of the bench bosses were all that sold on Knuble. But O'Connell wouldn't relent. He felt the big winger could be a force if given the chance.

With Knuble scoring a career-high 30 goals last season, and having a team-high seven through 14 games this year, O'Connell doesn't feel the need to plead his case anymore.

"Sometimes we have the ability to see him where some of the coaches haven't," said O'Connell, who has followed Knuble's development since his college days at the University of Michigan. "He deserves a lot of the credit. Did we like what we saw? Yes. But he's made the most of his opportunity.

"We asked the coaches to keep him on our team, we said we liked him as a person, he represents the Bruins very well. He stands for all things you like in your organization. He doesn't take himself too seriously. How he's developed has really been his doing."

Knuble's best goal production before last season was 15 in 1998-99. During his early years as a pro, he was relied on for offense in the minors but once he went up to the NHL, he struggled to find his niche. The Rangers were a veteran club continually adding high-priced and well-known free agents. However, Knuble said he enjoyed playing there. When he scored 15 goals, it was largely because of his time spent on a line with Petr Nedved and Niklas Sundstrom.

"Someone once told me you have to score to get to the NHL but then you have to play defense to stay there," said Knuble. "It's one thing to score in the AHL, it's another thing to come up here."

When he began his career with the Detroit organization, he worked his way up by playing on the fourth line. Nirvana came with the Rangers when he was on a line for several games with the greatest who ever played, Wayne Gretzky, in his final season. And now Knuble is one-third of one of the most formidable lines in the NHL, skating with Joe Thornton and Glen Murray.

"To come here, it was obviously a breath of fresh air," said Knuble. "The team was young and in a bit of a shambles because it was decimated by injury. I think Pat had had enough of that season. I saw it as a new beginning."

But after Burns was fired, Keenan wasn't all fired up about Knuble; he was more excited about newcomer Dixon Ward. When Ftorek came in, he saw Knuble as an average player even though it was Ftorek who first tried Knuble with Thornton and Murray. As happy as Knuble was to be on the top line, even in the unfamiliar position of left wing, he never felt it was an entitlement, especially under Ftorek.

"I was on a pretty short leash with him," said Knuble. "I could feel the jerk every once in a while."

He thought that if he didn't play well on one night, he wouldn't be back there the next. This season there's a bigger comfort level, but Knuble said he'll never relax all that much.

"Getting a whole year under my belt was big," he said. "You have a better chance of being counted on for things. With Robbie, I didn't know what to expect. You assume the worst. You mentally put yourself on the fifth or sixth line trying to make the team.

"I don't have enough talent to think I'm something that I'm not. I'm not going to all of a sudden stop grinding for pucks or doing what makes me successful."

Despite his success last season, Knuble started this year on a line with Brian Rolston and P.J. Axelsson. Then he was put with Sergei Samsonov and Travis Green. In both combinations, he was back on the right side. But Thornton and Murray were struggling for offense, so Sullivan put him back with them. Instant offense.

"I don't do things great but I think I do a lot of things well," said Knuble. "I can think a little bit offensively. I kind of know what to do and what not to do as far as trying to get pucks, like set picks here and there to free up Joe and give him some space and getting in the way of other people and go in front of the net."

Going in front of the net brings opportunity but also punishment. In addition to the jousting, you're liable to get a crosscheck in the back or a slash in your knees.

"It's not that bad," said Knuble. "It's not as bad as it was years ago. I feel like they've toned it down a lot. A guy like [St. Louis defenseman Chris] Pronger used to really swing his stick. Now guys can't swing their sticks. Defenses have changed. They're not going to not let you stand in front of the net. It used to be they'd whack you; now they front you more. When the puck comes, they'll hit you but they won't waste their time hitting you before that."

Assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said management always felt Knuble was a diamond in the rough.

"When you think back a few years, to some of the coaches we had and some of the opportunities he wasn't getting," said Gorton, "you don't want to say Mike was force-feeding him, but he did stick with him and said, `He can play, I know he can play, give him a chance.' Playing with those two guys is conducive to getting points, but a lot of games, Knuble has been the best player, too, so he's not just there for the ride."

If the Bruins measure the success of their top line by points and other categories of production, Knuble measures his by how much pain he's in when he wakes up the next day.

"That's a good feeling," said Knuble. "This comes after years of driving home in the car and not wanting to sit down in the car because I'd been sitting on the bench so long.

"Or we'd go out after a road game and they'd ask if I wanted to sit down and I said, `No, I'll stand.' Because I'd been sitting all night.

"That's the best feeling, when you drive home and you wake up the next morning and you think, `Man, I'm sore.' I love that feeling. Then you know you did something. That's more rewarding than anything."

. . .

Defenseman Dan McGillis didn't skate yesterday, taking the day off for treatment on assorted aches and pains. He is expected to play against the Oilers tonight.

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