The Leafs have found their first line winger and his name is Matthew Knies
Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
By Alex Hobson1 month ago
Following the wave of free agent signings made by new general manager Brad Treliving this summer, most people had Tyler Bertuzzi penciled in as the Leafs’ inevitable top line left wing. It made sense, given his reputation as an energy player who has a nose for the corners and the front of the net, but there was one clear answer to the question of who would skate alongside Auston Matthews and Marner long-term, and it was always going to be Knies.
Matthews and Marner have had a multitude of wingers skate alongside them, but they’ve generally seen the best results when they have a hounddog on their left side, specifically somebody like Zach Hyman or Michael Bunting. Knies can be everything those two players are, but because he only has a total of 22 games played in the NHL, it feels like there’s a bit of pressure to be patient with him. Normally, I’d agree with this, but Knies has been so aggressively good wherever the Leafs have played him that it almost forces you to overlook his lack of experience.
One of the hardest things to do in the NHL is make your debut as a rookie. Now imagine doing it while playing for a franchise considered to be the mecca of hockey with a 19-year curse dragging behind them, in the playoffs no less. You don’t have to imagine it, all you have to do is go back and watch.
Knies made his debut for the Leafs with three regular season games left in 2022-23, and while he only managed one assist, you could see that he belonged both mentally and physically. Despite this, Sheldon Keefe dressed Zach Aston-Reese in his place for Game 1 against Tampa. The Leafs got destroyed, and Knies subsequently suited up for Game 2. The Leafs would dominate that game and tie the series up at 1. He would go on to be on the ice for a number of massive goals in the series, including his assist on the John Tavares goal to break the aforementioned curse. He also scored his first playoff goal in Game 1 against Florida, a connection with Matthews that foreshadowed what was to come.
I can’t fully blame Keefe for taking 12 games to make the most obvious lineup adjustment there was to make, mostly because Knies has excelled wherever he’s played. Not necessarily on the scoresheet, but in terms of making an impact on the game and being noticeable in a good way, he’s managed to do it whether he’s skating alongside Fraser Minten, David Kampf, Tavares, or Matthews. His early chemistry with Minten gave the Leafs an opportunity to let Bertuzzi skate with the first line, but whether it took until now, the trade deadline, or the playoffs, he was always going to end up on Matthews’ wing.
In case you were one of those people that needed to see it in real time to believe it, Knies’ impact on that top line was felt in the biggest way imaginable against Tampa Bay on Monday night. He opened the scoring less than four minutes into the game, with Matthews and Marner both collecting assists, and he delivered a beautiful assist of his own on the former’s second goal of the game. The end result of the game was a goal and two assists for Knies, two goals and an assist for Matthews, and a goal and three assists for Marner. That’s ten points for the line in total, for those like myself who struggle with math.
Not only did Knies impress the entirety of the fanbase, he also earned the praise of Matthews, and accepted the Leafs’ celebratory belt for player of the game voted by his teammates.
His three points last night bring him to seven points in 12 games on the season, with him and Jarnkrok providing some depth scoring for a nice change. At this point, there really shouldn’t be any circumstances where Knies is anywhere but the first line. The chemistry between the two Arizona boys is undeniable, and gives Matthews and Marner a proper power forward to play with.
The Leafs sacrificed defence for offence this summer, beefing up their depth scoring with players like Bertuzzi and Max Domi specifically to give them the flexibility for situations like this. Their depth scoring won’t hurt without Knies in the bottom six, and if he gets the opportunity to play a full season on that top line, I guarantee you the Leafs will ask themselves why he wasn’t there the whole time.
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