It has been a busy week in the world of Leafs prospects. The NCAA Tournament is well underway, European leagues are now into their playoffs, and one of the most exciting prospects in the organization had a big week for the Marlies.
I won’t waste your valuable time with any more preamble so let’s get to it.
Nick Abruzzese | W | Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)
For the last several weeks, the expectation was that Abruzzese would turn pro whenever Harvard’s season came to an end. After they were eliminated at the hands of Minnesota State on Thursday, I heard from sources on Friday that he was indeed in the process of finalizing his entry level contract with the Leafs and the deal was officially announced on Saturday.
Drafted by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2019 draft as an overaged player, Abruzzese has established himself as a legitimate NHL prospect in his two seasons at Harvard.
He racked up 14 goals and 30 assists in just 31 games during his freshman season in 2019-20, and earned plenty of accolades in the process. Abruzzese was the ECAC’s leading scorer, earned the conference’s rookie of the year award, was named a first team all-star for both the ECAC and Ivy League, and was named a second-team All-American for the Eastern region.
Abruzzese’s freshman year went about as well as anyone could have hoped but his development – along with pretty much everything else in the world – was put on hold in 2020. In the midst of the pandemic, Harvard announced the cancellation of their winter sports programs for the season and Abruzzese went under the knife to repair a lingering hip issue.
Following such a long layoff and presumably difficult rehab and recovery process, Abruzzese returned for the beginning of the 2021-22 season and picked up where he left off back in 2020. Named a team captain at the outset of the season, he was once again a driving force for the Crimson, finishing with 33 points in 28 games to earn Ivy League Player of the Year honors. He likely would have led the team in scoring again as well, but for the small matter of representing his country at the Olympic Winter Games in February where he tallied a goal and three assists over four contests.
It has been a bit of a longer road for the now 22-year-old Slate Hill native but he is finally set to realize his dreams of becoming an NHL player.
Abruzzese is a highly intelligent player who is able to see plays unfolding ahead of time, and his great vision allows him to pick apart opposing defensive coverages. He isn’t the biggest player at just 5’10” and around 175 pounds but he makes up for it with a strong work ethic and high level of skill. In fact, he is the exact kind of player who may actually benefit from playing against more difficult competition with more talented teammates simply because of his elite hockey IQ.
Abruzzese will join the Leafs on Monday when they head to Boston and it is expected that he will make his debut sometime this week. He has played both center and wing in college but he profiles as a winger at the NHL level. With a hole on the left side of the Leafs’ second line and a fourth unit that has struggled mightily as of late, there figures to be opportunities for Abruzzese to grab hold of a spot down the stretch.
Matthew Knies | W | Minnesota (NCAA)
The Leafs were quick to bring Abruzzese into the fold after Harvard was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament but they’ll have to wait at least a couple more weeks before they try and do the same with Knies, due in large part to his outstanding play in the regional round over the weekend.
With the Gophers trailing UMass in the regional semifinal, Knies started throwing his weight around and flipped the momentum in Minnesota’s favour before they were able to tie it up.
He wasn’t done there, however, and with Minnesota trailing by a goal late in the third period, Knies gloved down a clearing attempt and quickly fired it into the top of the cage to tie it up.
Ben Meyers was the hero for the Gophers in overtime but Knies was a big reason they even made it to the extra frame, finishing with a goal and an assist while being a menacing physical presence.
It was a similar story when the Gophers went to battle with number one seed Western Michigan in the regional final on Sunday. After taking a hard slapshot off his foot early in the game, Knies returned to the ice and gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead in his first shift back.
Knies kept up the physical play against the Broncos as well:
It was a dominant showing for Knies over the weekend as he was instrumental in both victories, helping lead the Gophers to a berth in the Frozen Four.
The Matthew Knies hype train is full steam ahead and he certainly isn’t doing anything to slow it down. Leafs fans are understandably excited at the potential of him being added to the NHL lineup but that will have to wait at least a couple more weeks as the Frozen Four matchups are scheduled to get going on April 7th.
There is also still the chance that Knies and/or the Leafs decide that he would benefit from another year at school, but that is becoming more difficult to justify with each passing game. Knies is certainly a unique case as a second-round pick from the most recent draft – according to research from TLN’s own Kyle Cushman, if the Leafs do sign Knies and play him this spring, he would be the first NCAA player drafted outside the first round to appear in NHL games in his draft+1 season.
To say that Knies has exceeded expectations in his freshman season would be a massive understatement and with his physical profile, he may indeed be ready to compete at the pro level but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see if the Leafs feel the same way.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool
- Another one of the Leafs’ NCAA prospects had his season come to an end in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as Veeti Miettinen and his St. Cloud State Huskies were eliminated by Quinnipiac. Miettinen was held scoreless in the game, finishing off a bit of an underwhelming season in which he produced slightly less in more games than he did as a freshman. He will be looking to bounce back and establish himself as a legitimate NHL prospect in his junior season.
- Nick Robertson had a big week after being sent down to the Marlies, notching three goals and three assists in five games, including a four point night against Wilkes Barre. There has been an obvious progression in Robertson’s ability to handle the pro pace and he could still become a viable secondary scoring option for the Leafs in the final weeks of the season leading into the playoffs.
- The Liiga regular season has come to an end and the playoffs are underway, with both Topi Niemelä and Roni Hirvonen taking part with their respective teams. Niemelä closed out the regular season with a two point game, setting the record for the most productive season from a U20 blueliner in Liiga history. He and his Kärpät teammates dropped game one of their opening round series, and Niemelä was held off the scoresheet in just under 20 minutes of ice time. Hirvonen was also held scoreless as HIFK was shutout in their first playoff matchup.
- The SHL season also came to an end and Pontus Holmberg closed out a fantastic season with a two assist effort in the final game. He set new career highs this season, tallying 11 goals and 30 assists in 46 games. Växjö was once again a top team in the SHL, earning a first round playoff bye. They are set to take on Frölunda in the quarterfinals and Holmberg is expected to join the Marlies whenever their run comes to an end.
- Ty Voit continued his stellar campaign with Sarnia this past week, including a five point outing against the London Knights. For the season, he now has 21 goals and 51 assists through 58 games.
- Vyacheslav Peksa has reclaimed the starting job for Irbis Kazan over Artur Akhtyamov and after dropping the first two games of their quarterfinal series in the MHL playoffs, Peksa has won two straight to pull his club even, including a 19 save shutout in game four. With the recent news that Kazan may be folding their VHL affiliate for next season, it will be interesting to see where both Peksa and Akhtyamov end up playing next season.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com & NCAA.com)