Once a Leafs prospect hopeful, Matthew Knies is here and ready to contribute
Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
By Alex Hobson1 month ago
In the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect system, nobody has progressed from relatively unknown prospect to legitimate contributor as quickly as Matthew Knies. Originally a second round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, his draft year production in comparison to the year before wasn’t all that different. Intriguing prospect? Sure, but at the time, not one who should be relied on to contribute to the Leafs anytime in the near future.
Well, someone must have told Knies that he was a ways away from contributing at the NHL level, because his production in 2022-23 saw a big uptick in production. In his sophomore season with the University of Minnesota, he tallied 21 goals and 21 assists for 42 points in 42 games and scored a number of big goals for his team. After a disappointing finish to his 2022-23 NCAA season that ended with a loss to Quinnipac University in the Frozen Four Final, he signed his entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs and essentially jumped onto a moving roller coaster.
Knies made his NHL debut with three games remaining in the regular season, tallying one assist, and although there was speculation about whether he was ready for playoff hockey, he once again forced their hand. After watching Game 1 against Tampa Bay from the press box, he made his debut in Game 2 and not only succeeded, but contributed to a number of key moments in the series, including an assist on John Tavares’ overtime winner in Game 6.
He proceeded to score his first NHL goal (playoff goal, anyway) in Game 1 of the second round against Florida, but his playoff run was cut short after sustaining a concussion from a hit by Sam Bennett. The Maple Leafs’ postseason run would end shortly after, and while it wasn’t entirely because of Knies’ injury, his loss removed a clear spark from their lineup.
Okay, so here’s a 20-year-old rookie with a grand total of one assist in three regular season games, and four points in seven playoff games. Why is everybody penciling him into a roster spot for the 2023-24 season, even after the additions of supporting cast forwards like Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi?
The answer is clear – you’d understand if you watched him play.
I really hate to use the eye test as my primary argument to justify someone’s play, good or bad, because the reality is that my eye test is completely unique to the next fan, and even more unique to that of Sheldon Keefe’s or Brad Treliving’s. But sometimes, there’s enough evidence to get the majority of people on board, and the fact is, Knies has continued to force the head coach’s hand, even when you’d think a year or two in the AHL is best for his development long term.
Between the first time he put on a Leafs jersey and Saturday night’s game in Tampa Bay, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound forward has demonstrated an ability to play all around the lineup and mesh with a number of different linemates. He took some reps alongside both Auston Matthews and John Tavares in the playoffs last season, and started this season skating alongside fellow rookie Fraser Minten and veteran Calle Jarnkrok.
Knies’ physical frame is a big reason he’s been able to stick in the NHL – not just because of how tall he is, but because of the way he’s been able to use his body. He’s not a “bash bro” type, with five hits in five games so far this season, but he can more than hold his own during board battles, and has shown an ability to lay a big hit now and then. Combine this with some advanced hockey IQ for his age, and intriguing instincts on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game, and it’s no wonder why he keeps getting looks.
His performance on Saturday night is ultimately what inspired this piece. If you missed it, Knies scored the first two NHL goals of his career to tie the game at three, both set up by the aforementioned Domi. He was actually moved up to the second line with Tavares and William Nylander, in Keefe’s words “because he needs more minutes”, but in an effort to generate some offense in the last few minutes of the game, was moved to the third line with Domi and David Kampf while Nylander jumped up to the top line. Ironically enough, Knies would score his first two NHL goals while bumped out of the top six.
To me, it’s never been more clear that the Leafs need to stop treating Knies like a hopeful prospect and start treating him like a regular contributor, and somebody who can make an impact whenever he’s on the ice. Keefe has already demonstrated confidence in his rookie, but I’m talking extra power play reps and a permanent spot in the top six.
Go ahead and say I’m overreacting to a small sample size, and call it recency bias if you want. But the reality is, it’s not recency bias. It’s “last year of college, first few NHL games, first few playoff games, rookie tournament, preseason, and 2023-24 NHL regular season bias”. At this point, not once have I seen Knies play a game and thought “yeah, that’s a rookie that needs some seasoning”. And until he gives us a reason to think that, the Leafs should be treating him like somebody who can legitimately help the team in the moments they need it the most – because that’s what he is.
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