Timelines and expectations for Matthew Knies as a Maple Leaf
Photo credit:Nick Barden
By Jon Steitzer1 month ago
Matthew Knies could very well be in his last couple of months of college hockey. The Leafs very much wanted to add him last spring after his breakout freshman season and Olympic appearance, but with the Minnesota Golden Gophers coming up short on the national title there was some unfinished business Knies wanted to attend to and with the Gophers having some additional high profile returning players and even more significant freshman additions in Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud, the desire to return to the NCAA was strong.
Since that time, Knies has continued to be a top prospect for the Leafs. Some flaws with Knies might have been acknowledged at the Leafs summer prospect camp where he failed to stand out, and in the summer World Juniors, Knies couldn’t buy a goal even if he was useful in creating space for his linemates Logan Cooley and Matthew Coronato. There might have been concerns, but those are largely gone now that Knies is sitting on a new career best 17 goals (in 5 fewer games than last season) which are good enough for the 3rd best in the country. He also finds himself in the top 20 in the country in scoring and 30th in points per game. Knies also finds himself on the long list of candidates for the Hobey Baker Award, so things are going well.
The production is certainly what you hope to see, but how Knies does it is what makes him important for the Leafs. Knies’ power-forward blend of finishing ability and physical play makes him a bit of a unicorn for Toronto. That’s not to say that Toronto hasn’t dipped its toes in the power forward pool before, but no matter how you want to slice it the David Clarkson, Nick Ritchie, Nick Foligno, Tyler Biggs, and Mason Marchment legacy isn’t a happy one. Not to put too much pressure on Knies, but he’s the next in line to suffer through Wendel Clark comparisons.
That’s the thing I want to write about with Knies today, now that I’ve taken the wandering road to the point, and that is what can reasonably be expected of Knies both in the short term.
Before we get to expectations, I’m going to stay on that wandering road a little longer and look at the timelines for Knies. February is still very much part of the NCAA regular season and as such Knies isn’t coming to Toronto anytime soon. After that comes the Big Ten playoffs, in March and that’s another commitment for the Leafs prospect. Finally, late in March, we get the Frozen Four, the 16-team tournament that brings about the national champion. The fact that the University of Minnesota is ranked #1 in the country at the moment, as has been at the top of the NCAA rankings throughout the year makes that a lock for being involved.
The rounds of 16 and 8 teams are played on March 23rd and March 25th. The University of Minnesota being upset early in the tournament is the quickest path to Knies joining the Leafs. So the worst case for Knies/best case for the Leafs is that he could get 10 games with the Leafs this season.
The more realistic outcome of Minnesota having a strong tournament means playing in the Frozen Four games on April 6th and potentially the April 8th Final. Knies would get into three games at best for the Leafs in that situation. Beyond the benefit of getting Knies into as many games as possible, there is also the benefit to the Knies of burning a year off his entry level contract. There’s a likely benefit to the Leafs as well out of that as there is the potential for Knies to take a friendly cap hit if it ends up being year a shorter.
As for what can be expected of Matthew Knies, I think Nick Abruzzese set the bar fairly low for him as the most recent player to come out of the NCAA directly into the Leafs lineup. It’s not that Abruzzese looked bad, but with one goal in 9 games, there wasn’t much in the way of an immediate payoff for the Leafs. Expectations from Knies may be a little bit higher, but with Knies, it is going to be a bit less about offensive production and a bit more about using his size to benefit the Leafs.
Depending on what the Leafs do at the trade deadline there is an opportunity for Knies to slot in anywhere in the bottom nine forward wing slots. Odds are the second line wing spot will be spoken for by a trade deadline acquisition, so we’ll rule that out. What it seems like it will come down to is whether Sheldon Keefe sets up the third or fourth line as the better-sheltered scoring line in the bottom six. Whichever line is more focused on being sheltered is likely the better fit for Knies rather than one focused on shutting down the opposition.
Knies has helped that line drive play all season with his impressive transition game and relentlessness on the forecheck. He plays a true power game but also shows finesse with the puck on his stick, routinely facilitating clean entries to set up offensive possessions. He is exceptional playing through contact, bulldozing his way to the middle of the ice, but he is also agile for a big man and possesses impressive small-area skill. Knies can dangle his way around defenders into open space, and he doesn’t need much time to fire a slick pass or unleash his lethal wrister. What makes him so valuable is that he combines those offensive tools with an elite physical game. Knies is always physically engaged, ready to throw a big hit on the forecheck or battle for space in front of the net, and he has refined puck protection skills. His combination of physical strength, solid positioning, and slick hands allows him to consistently make plays coming off the wall, getting pucks to the middle of the ice to create scoring opportunities. Knies doesn’t have many holes in his game, and players with his skillset have become premium assets in the NHL.
Nick does a good job of tempering immediate expectations in his article and that putting Knies into the top six is a stretch. The versatile skillset of Knies could benefit the Leafs bottom six but even counting on Knies being ready to be a regular in the playoffs might be wishful thinking.
Given that Knies is such a unicorn within the Leafs organization it’s safe to say he won’t be traded. It’s also safe to say that expecting him to come into the NHL and make an immediate difference is a stretch. The priority around Knies should be getting him signed and developing with Toronto. Everything else is a bonus.
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