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TLN Prospect #1: Matthew Knies wreaks havoc as a new breed power forward

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Kyle Cushman
3 months ago
The rise of Matt Knies has truly been a sight to behold over the past year.
Entering the 2021-22 season, expectations were fairly muted for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top pick from the 2021 draft. He wasn’t a significant faller in the draft, having been projected to go in the range in which the Leafs selected him, and slotted a modest seventh on last summer’s TLN Prospect Rankings.
Knies was a notable break from previous Toronto selections, listed at 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds, but there wasn’t major hype surrounding him heading into the season. That changed pretty quickly.
Matt Knies’ emergence as a borderline dominant presence in the NCAA as a freshman vaults him to the top spot on the TLN Prospect Rankings.

Matt Knies

LW | Minnesota (Big Ten) | Age: 19 | 6-foot-3 | 210 lbs | Shoots: L
Acquired: 2021 Draft, 57th Overall | 2021 Ranking: #7
Before we get into the breakdown of Matt Knies’ game and why he is TLN’s top prospect, it’s important to understand the context of his draft-eligible season and why he was available in the back half of the second round.
For a full deep dive into this topic, I covered it last summer as an intriguing storyline heading into the year. Essentially, Knies was significantly impacted in the first half of the 2020-21 season by COVID. He dealt with the virus himself and his team, Tri-City, also had an uncertain schedule that was in constant flux to do postponements.
In their post-draft media availabilities, the Maple Leafs seemed surprised Knies was still available at their slot in the second round. Both Kyle Dubas and John Lilley (then Director of Amateur Scouting) noted Knies’ underage season and second-half performance as reasons for being so high on him. Looking into the numbers, there was certainly truth to the sentiment.
Coming into the 2021/22 season, we were going to find our answer. Was Matt Knies the calibre of prospect he showed in the second half and set to make the Leafs look like geniuses, or was he much closer to the player in the first half that struggled to make an impact at the USHL level?
It didn’t take long to prove the former true.
On a top team in the Big Ten, Knies locked down a spot on the top line early and never gave it up. The duo he formed with @Ben Meyers was one of the best in the NCAA, constantly giving opponents trouble.
Finishing the campaign with 15 goals and 33 points in as many games, only three players from the 2021 draft scored at a higher rate in their freshman seasons: 2nd overall pick @Matthew Beniers, 5th overall pick @Kent Johnson, and 13th overall pick Matt Coronato.
Statistically, there wasn’t a weakness in Knies’ season. He scored at both even strength and on the powerplay, he had some of the highest individual shot generation in the NCAA, and didn’t rely on an overly high shooting percentage.
What stands out most when watching Matt Knies play is the intensity he brings to every shift and every aspect of the game. Whether it’s on the forecheck, in pursuit, carrying the puck, off the puck movement, or shooting, everything Knies does is done with a determination and vigour that draws your attention.
Take his violent shot, for example.
Or his relentless puck pursuit.
Or his forechecking.
This intensity, in combination with his size, is what makes Knies a power forward. The way he utilizes these skills is what makes him a new breed player.
Knies doesn’t hit for the sake of hitting. His goal is to get the puck and get to the inside lane ASAP. If hitting is what the situation calls for, he is more than happy to do so.
What Knies does more often is lead with his stick and use body positioning to strip his opponent of possession, recognizing that a hit may not be the best possible solution to getting the puck back in every situation.
Knies could drive the Michigan player through the boards here if he really wanted to but instead looks to get possession of the puck and exit the zone. He does so by leading with his stick, lifting his opponent’s, and gaining body position to shield the puck and spin-off to make the pass to a teammate who can exit the zone.
Knies’ ability to use his body to his advantage is relevant in multiple areas. Not only is he able to gain possession in the way shown above, but he also frequently gets low and uses his strength to lift the stick of an opponent and take the puck away.
Once again, this ability to get low and use his size is showcased in arguably his best skill: his puck protection.
If Matt Knies has the puck, odds are you’re not getting it back. Knies puts his 6-foot-3 frame to use, shielding players on his back and using his free hand to swipe away any futile attempts to knock the puck off of his stick.
The intensity with which Knies plays is all towards one common goal, get the puck to the inside lane.
Knies is constantly looking to bring the puck from the outside to the inside. Whether it’s a drive to the net or pulling a puck from the boards to the middle of the ice, every play Knies makes seems to be with the intention of getting the puck to the most dangerous area of the ice.
Knies is more of a shot threat than a playmaker. He can make short-range passes but isn’t particularly looking to make highlight reel cross-ice plays, whereas he is a shot threat from further out in the slot.
Off the puck, Knies excels in finding soft spots of coverage around the net and in the slot. Often, Knies was able to separate himself from a defender to create a dangerous opportunity.
On top of all of these elements, Knies also loves to deke around defenders. He does so more in reaction to opposing defenders rather than to manipulate them in the first place (more on that momentarily), but his skill does creates some flashy plays.
Where Knies stands to improve is the addition of deception to his game. As it stands, Knies is more of a reactor on the ice. He has the skill to take advantage of his opponent given the situation, but commonly did so in response to how they were defending rather than manipulating them with his actions in the first place.
To truly unlock the next level of his game and go from a potential complementary piece at the next level to a play driver himself, creating these opportunities for himself rather than just reacting when the situation arises will be key.
In this example against Michigan from this season, Knies shows his skill and quick reactions by dancing around Luke Hughes to create a goal. Nothing Knies does should make Hughes overcommit the way he does, but he takes advantage nonetheless.
Once he turns pro, those opportunities will come fewer and fewer. The ability to deceive your opponent, manipulating where they go rather than simply reacting to what is given, is what separates the top talent from the secondary ones. Diversifying his rushes, playing at different speeds, and adding more fakes to his game will go a long way to becoming that kind of play driver.
An exhausting amount of talk has been centred around Knies’ decision to return to the University of Minnesota rather than turn pro following his freshman season. I believe it was the right decision for his development as a player.
Simply put, the expectations for Knies were astronomically high. He wasn’t stepping into the Leafs lineup at 2LW with @John Tavares and @William Nylander if he signed, that just wasn’t a realistic scenario. For context, just four NCAA forwards since 2005 turned pro following their DY+1 season and played in the NHL, those being @Casey Mittelstadt, @Clayton Keller, @Tyson Jost, and @Kyle Turris.
And the expectation that Knies would’ve been a difference maker in the postseason? @Charlie McAvoy is the lone DY+1 NCAA player since 1990 to have played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Had Knies signed with Toronto, he would’ve gotten into a couple of regular season games and been a black ace for the playoffs, *maybe* getting a couple of minutes on the fourth line. A move to turn pro was much more about the path of his development for 2022-23 and whether it would take place at Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto or 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, less about whether Knies would’ve been a factor in the Leafs’ 2022 postseason run.
Returning to the NCAA, Knies has the opportunity to continue developing, be a star forward and truly dominate at the collegiate level, and become a leader in the dressing room, all while still factoring in at the end of the Maple Leafs’ season when he all but certainly turns pro after the NCAA tournament in early April.
As for his place atop the TLN Prospect Rankings, that discussion is a much more interesting one. There is a clear group of three at the peak of Toronto’s prospect pool, Knies, @Nicholas Robertson, and @Topi Niemela. When healthy, @Rodion Amirov fits in this group as well.
Knies ranks above Robertson and Niemela for three reasons. Firstly, Knies is the youngest of the trio and has the longest development track ahead of him. Second, he has the cleanest bill of health, with both Robertson and Niemela dealing with notable injuries over the past two seasons.
But the primary reason for Knies ranking number one comes down to the array of NHL possibilities for his future. Even if Knies is unable to add more elements to his game, he has an NHL future as a complementary winger that can crash and bang on the forecheck with the skill to keep up with better players. If he does become add more to his game, there is legitimate upside as a top-six power forward.
Robertson and Niemela are quality prospects in the system, don’t get me wrong, but their NHL futures are much more pigeon-holed than Knies’. There are obvious scenarios where either or both become more impactful NHL players than Knies, but at this point in time, the combination of Knies’ comparable upside *and* his projection if he doesn’t hit that peak makes him the top prospect on the 2022 TLN Prospect Rankings.
This upcoming year, Knies will feature for the University of Minnesota without his running mate last season of Ben Meyers. Not to worry, as the Golden Gophers are casually adding 2022 3rd overall pick and Knies’ centre at the World Juniors, Logan Cooley.
With nearly their entire defence returning, one that was already one of the best in the country, Minnesota will have a legit shot at the National Championship in 2023. Knies will be tasked with leading the group offensively, a forward core that has had quite a bit of turnover compared to the rest of the roster.
In just one season, Matt Knies has captured the attention of Leafs Nation, going from an intriguing second-round pick to a legit prospect on NHL radars. His progression as one of the most unique prospects in the system vaults Knies into the top spot on the TLN Prospect Rankings, a position he will look to retain next summer if he has the truly dominant NCAA season that is expected of him this time around.
Statistics from Elite Prospects and Pick 224
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