With the Frozen Four coming to a conclusion, everyone in Toronto is awaiting a decision on whether Matthew Knies will turn pro or return for another year of college hockey but the Leafs didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs last week, signing a couple of other prospects to entry level deals.
In addition to bringing in a couple of new recruits, the Leafs’ system saw a pair of players earn NCAA All-American honors, and a handful of other prospects had their seasons come to an end.
Let’s get to it.
Matthew Knies | W | Minnesota (NCAA)
Matthew Knies contract watch is officially underway after his Gophers were defeated by Minnesota State in the national semifinal. The Leafs’ 2021 second-rounder got his club out to an early lead but that was all the scoring Minnesota would be able to muster in their final game of the season.
Though it didn’t end the way he had hoped, Knies had a monster freshman season on one of the NCAA’s best teams. He finished the campaign with 15 goals and 18 assists for 33 points in 33 games – good enough for fifth-best among all NCAA players drafted in 2021, just behind first-round picks Kent Johnson and Matthew Coronato. With that kind of production and the way he was able to impose his physical will as a first-year college player, Leafs fans are understandably excited about the idea of Knies turning pro this spring.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Knies signing with the Leafs at the conclusion of Minnesota’s season felt like a foregone conclusion. In the last week or so, however, there has been a change in the narrative surrounding the burgeoning power forward and his plans for the immediate future. The prevailing thought among hockey insiders now seems to be that Knies is leaning towards returning for another year of school and another shot at a national title.
Knies was set to speak with the Leafs this weekend and hear their pitch, seemingly hinting that he hasn’t made a final decision on whether or not he will return to Minnesota for his sophomore season. By all accounts, the Leafs would like to get him into their system as soon as possible but they aren’t going to pressure him to leave school if he doesn’t feel he is ready.
The only other 2021 draftees who played in the NCAA this year who have signed NHL contracts so far are Owen Power, Matty Beniers, and Kent Johnson – all of whom were drafted in the top-five and just wrapped up their second NCAA seasons. If Knies were to turn pro this spring, it would be an unprecedented move for a freshman who was drafted at the back of the second round just a few short months ago.
Knies is a unique case in a lot of ways, though. He is more physically mature than most of his peers, already possessing the size and strength to match up against men. His draft slot isn’t indicative of his overall talent or potential either, and if his draft year hadn’t been disrupted by COVID, he probably would have been selected much earlier than where the Leafs managed to snag him. His skill level is apparent, with slick hands and a deadly shot that work in concert with his ability to protect pucks and make plays off the wall.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Knies is ready for pro hockey but he isn’t a finished product just yet and returning to college hockey for another season could help better prepare him for the jump to the pro ranks. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Kyle Cushman’s article on why another year of college might be best for Knies:
Fans may be disappointed if Knies does indeed decide to return to school for another season but they should be excited at the fact that a 19-year-old who was just drafted 57th overall is even being discussed in this light. It is still early in his development but it certainly looks like the Leafs came away with a steal when they made the decision to select Knies.
Now, Knies has a decision of his own to make and we shouldn’t have to wait long to find out if he’ll be dawning the Blue and White this spring or if he will be returning to Minnesota for another crack at a national title.
Nick Robertson | W | Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Robertson didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in his most recent stint with the Leafs but even in limited minutes, the signs of growth in his game were clear. Those signs have been even more apparent since his return to the Marlies where he is beginning to look more and more confident with each passing game, and he has the production to back it up.
In 12 games since he was loaned back to the AHL, he has produced over a point per game, racking up eight goals and five assists over that span. Though his sample size is limited due to injury and time missed while up with the Leafs, Robertson is tied for the third-highest points per game mark among U21 players in the AHL with names like Alexander Holtz, Peyton Krebs, and Lukas Reichel.
Perhaps even more impressive than the point totals is the way that Robertson has been able to dictate play more consistently. He looks more in control and far more comfortable in his surroundings, making quicker reads with the puck and generating offensive chances with regularity rather than rushing things and trying to do too much on his own as we saw in his first season.
Robertson is running out of time this season to bust through the logjam of forwards the Leafs currently have on their roster but his recent play could make him an option once again if they run into injuries and are in need of an offensive punch.
Regardless of whether or not he gets another look in the NHL this season, Robertson’s development is trending in a positive direction after a couple of difficult seasons marred by injury and shutdowns due to the pandemic, and he is putting himself in a good spot to push for a job on the NHL roster out of camp next fall.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool
- The Leafs dipped into the undrafted college free agent market, signing winger Max Ellis to a two-year entry level contract that begins next season. He recorded 16 goals and 12 assists in 39 games for Notre Dame this season. It is the second consecutive year that the Leafs have signed a player out of Notre Dame and they are hoping that Ellis can find the same success that Alex Steeves has in his first year of pro hockey. Ellis signed a professional tryout agreement with the Marlies for the rest of this season and made his debut on Sunday.
- The Leafs locked up another one of their own draft picks last week as well, signing 2020 sixth-rounder Axel Rindell to a two-year entry level contract that starts in 2022-23. Rindell was no sure bet to earn an ELC following a disappointing season in Liiga but the Leafs are banking on his offensive game translating to North American pro hockey. He is also expected to join the Marlies on a PTO for the remainder of the season.
- Recently signed Nick Abruzzese was named a First-Team All-American in the eastern region and 2020 seventh-rounder Ryan Tverberg earned Second-Team All-American honors as well.
- Several of the Leafs’ European prospects had their seasons come to an end this past week, including Topi Niemelä, Roni Hirvonen, Mikko Kokkonen, Pontus Holmberg, and Axel Rindell. Like Rindell, Kokkonen and Holmberg are already under contract with the Leafs and could join the Marlies for the remainder of the season. Niemelä and Hirvonen are both under contract with their Liiga clubs for another season and it seems less likely that we will see them in Toronto this spring.
- Ty Voit had another strong week with Sarnia in the OHL, tallying two goals and two assists over three games. He is up to 24 goals and 51assists in 63 games.
- After initially losing the starting job to fellow Leafs prospect Artur Akhtyamov through no fault of his own, Vyacheslav Peksa has retaken the crease for Irbis Kazan on what has become a deep playoff run. They are currently tied at two games apiece with Omskie Yastreby in the MHL semifinals and Peksa has been impressive through the postseason, sporting a .917 SV% through 12 games. He has had a spectacular season and an MHL championship would be a nice way to close it out.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)