Chemistry between Maple Leafs’ Knies and Minten on display early in preseason
Photo credit:David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
By Alex Hobson2 months ago
After a tough start to the preseason that saw them drop back-to-back games to the Ottawa Senators, the Maple Leafs’ training camp squad bounced back with a win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night and back-to-back wins against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday and Saturday. One common denominator from all three of these games? Top prospects Matthew Knies (2nd round, 57th overall in 2021) and Fraser Minten (2nd round, 38th overall in 2022) suited up for each game.
Although split up for the first game in Buffalo, the two rookies were paired together for the back-to-back against Montreal at the Bell Centre. In the three wins this week, Minten recorded a goal and three assists, with Knies scoring two goals and adding two assists of his own, good for four points apiece.
Knies was expected to have a good camp, given his impact late in the regular season and the 2023 playoffs, but Minten’s performance has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. He was already regarded as one of the team’s top prospects, the 19-year-old centre’s hockey IQ has been on full display, and he seems to have developed some solid chemistry with the 20-year-old Knies.
The Maple Leafs’ established stars have had a quiet training camp so far, but when your top rookies have been standing out as much as they have, why wouldn’t you play them? We know what the likes of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will bring when the regular season starts. While Knies is more or less guaranteed a spot on the roster after preseason concludes, Minten appears ready to head back to the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, where he’ll likely assume first-line centre duties and get far more of an opportunity to be one of their top offensive contributors.
Though he hasn’t gotten into as many games, the performance of 2023 first-round pick Easton Cowan shouldn’t be overlooked. The 18-year-old has a goal and two assists in three games of his own, and for someone who was assumed to be a reach when the Maple Leafs selected him, he’s been all over the ice and noticeable in the best way when he’s gotten an opportunity. Like Minten, he’s essentially guaranteed a return to junior, but both players are looking to have a big season with aspirations of cracking Canada’s World Junior team as well.
The performance from the three prospects carries over from the Traverse City Rookie Tournament, where Cowan led the team in scoring with six points, while Minten added five and Knies tallied four.
That said, Cowan is likely a year or two out at least from making the NHL. Knies is already there as we know, and given how well Minten reads the game for a teenager, he might have better odds of cracking the roster sooner rather than later. Of course, a full season in the AHL would probably be best for his development long-term, but he seems like he’s got an extra step to his game compared to last season. And when you’re a rookie vying for a shot to make the NHL and stay there, having your IQ as a strength will give you a boost over other options.
Minten’s vision for the ice and suave defensive abilities were on display for both goals Knies scored against Montreal. In the first game, he jumps off the bench on the penalty kill, strips Canadiens defenceman Justin Barron of the puck behind their net, and finds Knies in the slot for a shorthanded goal. Their usage on the penalty kill alone should tell you about Sheldon Keefe’s trust in them, and they proved him right by converting shorthanded.
On the Knies’ goal in the second game, Minten fishes the puck out of the corner and taps it onto his teammate’s stick before he finishes on the wraparound. Standing at 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, both he and Knies (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) have proven to be effective in using their bodies to their advantage. Minten threw three hits in Saturday’s game, both players finished their checks, and neither player bowed down in battles along the boards.
Knies appears set to play alongside John Tavares once the season gets underway, at least to start, and given the raving reviews he’s gotten going back to his debut, he’s somebody who could play on any of the top three lines with the versatility he has to his game. While it might take Minten another year or two to get there, the best-case scenario regarding his ceiling is a two-way centre capable of 50+ points a season. His arrival and subsequent prime should line up nicely with the expiration of Tavares’ contract, and while it’s far too early to assume who plays where when that time comes, it’s nice to see some early chemistry between two of the Maple Leafs’ top prospects.
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