Leafs will have to show patience when it comes to Matthew Knies’ offense

Photo credit:Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
10 months ago
It seems like when you throw around things like Olympian, Hobey Baker finalist, and Logan Cooley’s linemate, there is an elevated expectation of offensive production that goes along with that for one of the top tier NCAA players. Throw in things like First Team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year and it is fairly obvious why people are salivating over the idea of adding Matthew Knies before the playoffs. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any downside to having Knies as an option sooner rather than later but want to pump the breaks in regard to the offensive expectations of Matthew Knies.
Over the summer I had a chance to watch Knies fairly closely while covering the World Juniors and get a good sense of my eye test opinion of him at least at that stage in his career. His skating is decent but unattractive, his offense isn’t limited to his frequent net presence responsibilities as he has a great release, and if he’s given space he can be creative and even contribute to an offensive zone cycle. That was all eight months ago and a 20 year old player is going to improve significantly. I’m not sure that there are any new elements to Knies’ game, but he certainly seems to be more comfortable in it.
The thing that still sticks out to me is the production aspect. In the USHL and throughout his time in the NCAA, Knies has been a point-per-game player and primarily a goal scorer. A lot of that comes from relying on his size which gave him a huge advantage in the USHL and still gives him a lot of help in the NCAA. That size advantage dries up the second he puts on a pro jersey and while Knies is still on the bigger side of pro players, he’s not the only 6’2 guy out there hitting to hurt and defensemen don’t view him as the impossible net front assignment that he has been considered through his most recent seasons. The steep adjustment curves we’ve seen for players like Lawson Crouse should give a bit of pause about expecting immediate offense from Knies, but that’s okay. There are other elements to his game, but for now, let’s focus on his offensive output, why we can assume there will be a drop-off, and why Leafs fans should still be fine with that.
2019-20 Tri-City Storm44143145
2020-21 Tri-City Storm44172542
2021-22 Univ. of Minnesota33151833
2021-22 USA Olympics4112
2021-22 USA World Juniors5033
2022-23 Univ. of Minnesota40212142
The first thing that stands out with the larger samples of the USHL and the NCAA is that Knies is remarkably consistent as a point-per-game player. This year more than in previous seasons he’s been a goal scorer and a lot of that has to come from playing with Logan Cooley, but also having strong shooters on the Minnesota blue line.
What is interesting to me is the drop-off we see when it comes to the higher competition not only at the Olympics and the World Juniors but this current NCAA tournament season as well. Looking at the graph below you’ll see that Knies stopped scoring goals at the 35-game mark. That was the first game of the Big Ten tournament and in those two games along with the four played in the Frozen Four tournament, he was held scoreless. That’s not to say he didn’t get strong looks or was invisible on the ice, not at all. But he didn’t score goals. That should at least hint at what to expect initially from Knies at the pro level.
From the graph above we can see that Knies’ worst production came during the tournament games and he was far more consistent throughout the regular season. Part of that is being the top-ranked team in the country and while Knies is a big part of Minnesota being just that good and their schedule wasn’t exactly easy, being on a line with Cooley and Snuggerud and having a mix of opponents not facing progressively stronger ones is going to lend itself to great numbers.
I guess it also doesn’t really come as a surprise that when the top line wasn’t going for the Gophers they lost, it’s likely more about the Cooley-Knies-Snuggerud line not going so they lost than Knies failing to pick up points in a loss. There were only four wins during the regular season where Knies didn’t pick up a point. Thanks to a multi-point game in one overtime loss, Knies only got on the scoresheet in three of the games Minnesota didn’t win.
Top 5 Ranked Opponents738
Ranked 6-10735
Ranked 11-2013915
The above table does calm some of the fears that Knies might not match up well against the best competition. The tournament games could have been flashier statistically, but Knies still delivered what should have been expected from him. Good chances, big hits, and frequent chaos in front of the goaltender.
From a tracked stats perspective we can see that the offense skillset is there it just might take some time to emerge at a pro level. And more so than the offensive success, the transition game being as dominant as it gives hope that Knies can be a productive role player even if he doesn’t find his way onto the score sheet. Knies being a big guy with comfort carrying the puck in on entries has a huge advantage for a Leafs team that at times has struggled to punch through 1-3-1 systems. The fact that his passing entries and exits are also strong in addition to the carries should make Knies a safer option when it comes to being utilized in the bottom six sooner rather than later as he’s smart enough to make the right call.
Knies’ offense can’t fully be predicted nor can anyone’s coming out of school. There are a number of factors, losing the advantage of his size being the most prominent that could be impactful on him at the pro level. Using the 2020 Network NHL Equivalency values created by CJ Turtoro for the Big Ten, the median NNHLe value for Knies would put him as a 20 point player over an 82 game season. The 90th percentile value would have Knies at 24 points and the 10th percentile at 16. We would certainly want to believe that a Hobey Baker finalist would represent the top percentiles of the league, but the range is fair considering bottom six linemates, lower ice time, and certainly the adjustment to pro. Players like Tom Wilson and Lawson Crouse took 5 and 6 seasons respectively to break the 30 point per season mark in the NHL if that is the type of player you see Knies becoming (their physical impact came sooner, but it is important to note that it took time to develop as well). The long-term goal is likely to get Knies to be comfortable enough in the top nine, but any offensive that comes from him will always be regarded as secondary.
So where does that leave Toronto and Knies right now? After all, there’s a game tonight, and getting Knies into a situation where he can face a Panthers team that has something on the line in this game will be a better assessment of where he’s at than against the Lightning or Rangers who will be going through the motions prior to the playoffs.
The most interesting thing to do would be to test how Knies can look in a top six situation. Give him a shot with Tavares and Nylander and see if he can play the role he did with Cooley and Snuggerud. That would be fun for tonight but doesn’t necessarily get him on the path to how he’d be utilized heading into the playoffs.
From the bottom six perspective, I’d argue that Knies playing with Kerfoot in some capacity makes the most sense. A low-event safety net like Kerfoot is a good way of easing the rookie in and perhaps giving him shifts with O’Reilly as well would be beneficial, knowing that he’ll be swapped out for players like Acciari or Lafferty situationally as well.
With Jarnkrok likely out and Simmonds off the Leafs roster, Knies is playing (unless Toronto goes with 11F7D) and his trial by fire begins. The hope is that Matthew can show he belongs but for the foreseeable future, any appearance on the scoresheet is going to be gravy.
Data sourced from Elite Prospects and the University of Minnesota

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