There were reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs would want to try and improve their bottom six forward depth at the trade deadline, as the fourth line has struggled lately in terms of finding any sort of consistency the last few months.
They added Colin Blackwell since, but there was also the possibility that some of their top prospects could get an opportunity to get some minutes. However, prospects Nick Abruzzese and Matthew Knies could very well get a shot on the team late in the season.
Abruzzese has since signed a two-year, entry-level contract after Harvard’s season came to an end, posting 33 points in 28 games in the NCAA. Now that he’s in the books, the shift now turns to Knies. Though it may take some time as he’s off to the Frozen Four.
Drafted 57th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2021, Knies has been nothing but spectacular as a freshman for the University of Minnesota this season. As he continues to make his push for a championship, the likelihood that he could get a contract when it’s all said and done continues to increase with each game. His play alone this season makes him worthy of a roster spot for the Maple Leafs as he would be a much-needed addition to a team looking to find some balance up front for a playoff push.
Knies Can Bring It All
Knies’ progression as a prospect has taken everyone by storm. He made a seamless transition as a freshman in the NCAA, looking like two or three years ahead of everyone he goes up against. He looked great at the World Juniors before it got cancelled and postponed. There was also his play and ability to keep pace at the senior level tournament and big stage like the Olympics. No matter what level he’s at, he brings it all to the table.
This season, Knies has the fourth best point per game average (31points in 31 games), among freshmen behind Sean Farrell, Matthew Coronato and Josh Doan and is also tied for second in power play goals with five. Knies has got a power forward’s mentality with a high-end level of skill, smooth hands, awareness and an NHL-like shot. He does a great job to anticipate and read the plays extremely well and provides great body positioning along the boards and protecting the puck. He even has scored some key goals for the Gophers, including this one with general manager Kyle Dubas in attendance.
There’s also the physical presence that Knies possesses where if you don’t have your head up, you’ll be picking yourself off the ice. That play style and mentality is why the Minnesota Gophers are in the position that they’re in as one of the top teams on the collegiate scene.
This mentality is something that the Maple Leafs have been showing more of lately as they look to not be pushed around. Knies already has the skill that can complement this lineup, but the physicality is one aspect that he will definitely thrive in and push them over the top. That blend of toughness and skill is hard to come by and he has it.
The Best Fit for Knies
There’s no doubt that Knies is going to be an integral part of the Maple Leafs future. He has easily become a top-five prospect on the team and possibly even a top-three with his play alone. There’s even a distinct possibility that he could’ve been in the conversation as a mid-first round selection. After his play this season, the Maple Leafs look to have got a first-round talent in the second.
While the promise is there, let’s not forget that he’s only 19. You never want to rush your prospects as you want them to develop properly and not cut corners. Usually, you would want them to start off and develop in the American Hockey League. Unless in a certain circumstance where they may bypass that and jump to the pro level. Knies falls into this category as the Maple Leafs want to give him that shot once his collegiate season is done. He’s definitely earned the chance to showcase what he can do.
The big question is, where will he be in the lineup?
The Hockey News’ Tony Ferrari came out with a great article about the potential jump to the NHL for Knies if and when he signs his entry-level contract. The main point he talked about is his role in the lineup and the potential to steal a spot from a veteran player.
The fourth line has struggled quite a bit lately in terms of trying to generate any sort of play in the offensive zone. The spark that Wayne Simmonds was supposed to provide hasn’t been there. His spot could be in jeopardy if he can’t turn things around and there’s also the energy that Blackwell brings. What was once a strength for the Maple Leafs has become a question in the second half.
Knies can bring that finesse and energy to the fourth line while also bringing a much-needed offensive boost and ability to gain control offensively. That mix of physicality and skill is what they need in that role where he can lay the body, crash the net and play with pace. He would definitely thrive when the physical play is amped up in the post season with his strength and his offensive capabilities are much greater than that of Simmonds at the moment.
Some will say it doesn’t make sense to have a young player in a fourth line role as he wouldn’t benefit from minimal ice time. That’s true. But, there’s also no harm in giving Knies an audition to see how well they perform. If he can benefit from this and play a key role on the fourth line, then there’s also the possibility of giving him some looks on the second. He’s a player that can move up in the lineup and still provide that power game to give some balance and a jolt to the second line.
Much like the fourth line, the second has seen its ups and downs. Whatever Knies does on the fourth line, it can definitely translate into a top-six role, where his potential is. He could be given the chance much like Nick Robertson to succeed in that role if head coach Sheldon Keefe likes what he sees in Knies.
A Move that Can Pay Off
Sportsnet’s Luke Fox wrote that Dubas thinks so highly of prospects like Knies that there’s a reason why some AHLers weren’t given contracts. And it makes sense, given their progress and potential to make a more significant impact.
If Dubas feels that Knies, even Abruzzese, can be a factor in the lineup down this stretch and into the playoffs, it could very well be worth it. If he has this much faith in his prospects to give them this kind of opportunity, they must be ready to make the jump to the pro level. Knies will be able to go out there and do what he does best that made him successful in college and in the Olympics– utilizing his size, skill and shot.
Once he makes the jump, it’ll definitely be exciting to see what he can do at the pro level. Chances are, the hot play of Knies will continue.
Statistics from College Hockey News.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.