Looking back at a remarkable year of development by one of the Maple Leafs’ top prospects.
By now many Leafs fans know about Matthew Knies’ freshman NCAA season and are hyped for it. He was named to Team USA’s World Junior Championship camp roster, and many prospect writers are forecasting him to be on the top line. And to be clear, Knies has earned it with how he has played.
And I’m going to be honest, I don’t think anyone except Kyle Dubas and his scouts could have seen his remarkable development this year coming on the day Knies was drafted 57th overall. To be clear, some people had him ranked pretty high. You can read some snippets in the article Acting the Fulemin wrote to announce the draft choice.
But if you read the comments, profile and scouting reports from the people who were high on him, you can see what their reasons were. He was pro-ready, he had a big frame, he had a good shot, could play in front of the net, had some good skill, deception and a good shot.
All of that was true, and even people who ranked him lower said the same thing. The difference was they wanted more skill, more high-end ability to believe he’d be able to profile as a top 6 player instead of a big, physical power forward playing a checking role.
I wanted to look back at what happened, and what everyone except the Leafs did not see at the draft.
PART ONE: USHL HYPE & COVID-19
In his D-1 season, as an U17 player in the USHL, Matthew Knies had 45 points in 44 games. That point per game pace was 3rd in the USHL, and ahead of future first round picks like Thomas Bordeleau, Matt Beniers, Sasha Pastujov, Matt Coronato, and so on. With that point production and his size, he entered his draft season with hype as a future first rounder of his own.
But that didn’t happen. He started the season off slowly, with only two points through 8 games between November and December. He recovered somewhat, but that wound up with him finishing with a lower point pace than his previous season. His rankings fell, and scouts talked about how disappointing his season was. Not just in terms of points either, but they didn’t see any growth to his game.
I was very much the same. When the Leafs picked him, I openly said in the comments here that I was disappointed in the choice. I wanted them to trade down to get more picks — especially since they had traded away so many — or to pick some guys I thought were first round talents that were still available. But at the time, all I knew about Knies was that he was one of the older players in the draft and his points in his draft year was the same as it was the season before.
But when I actually dug into him, read his scouting reports, and watched some of his games in his draft-year, I started to come around. I still wasn’t ecstatic about it, but I could see there was something there. And it was clear that an injury and the COVID situation did him no favours.
In an article, Knies said that he missed some time at the beginning of the season with a concussion, and the first two months saw a lot of interruptions to their games due to COVID. Case in point: they only played in 10 games in the first two months of the season, with Knies missing two of them. Once he was fully recovered and they managed to avoid postponements to play regularly, Knies was better. You can see it in his month by month production:
- Nov = 4 games, 1 point, 0.25 ppg
- Dec = 4 games, 1 point, 0.25 ppg
- Jan = 10 games, 10 points, 1.00 ppg
- Feb = 9 games, 6 points, 0.67 ppg
- Mar = 7 games, 8 points, 1.14 ppg
- Apr = 10 games, 16 points, 1.60 ppg
But all the same, a high end prospect should be getting better through his draft season. That’s when you’re at an age when you see your biggest leaps in development. So when I wrote a more full profile on Knies, I specifically wanted to watch some of his games during the end of the season when he was clearly at his best.
You can read the full breakdown in the link above, but the TL;DR is that I did like some of what I saw, but still wasn’t fully sold. I didn’t see a lot of high-end skill. He was big, he knew how to use it, he was a very good skater in a straight line, had a good shot, and was effective carrying the puck on transitions. He could protect the puck in the offensive zone to cycle it, he could park himself in front of the net, and he was a terror on the forecheck.
But what I didn’t see was good playmaking. He never really pulled off any passes beyond the simplest, easiest ones. He never really dangled with the puck on his stick either. His best “moves” were chipping the puck off the boards with speed, then skating around the other side of a defender. With his size and speed, there was no defenseman in the USHL who could stop it if they failed to get a stick on the puck as he chipped it around them. He could also do a little toe drag now and then. You can see him put both moves together here:
#LeafsForever prospect Matthew Knies isn't just physical, he has some offensive skill as well.— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) July 25, 2021
Nice play to chip the puck around the defender and retrieve it before making a slick drag move to create a passing lane. pic.twitter.com/QTzbRqZXkV
I saw him pull off anything beyond the most basic deke less than once per game, between the USHL games of his that I watched. And remember, this was supposed to be when Knies was on a point-producing heater, when he was at his very best. So I liked some of his tools: his size, puck protection, transition, forechecking, and shot. But I wasn’t convinced there was a top 6 power winger.
PART TWO: SUMMER SHOWCASE TEASER
Then the summer came, and Knies was invited to be part of the two Team USA rosters at the World Junior Summer Showcase tournament. It included Sweden and Finland, and normally would include Canada but due to COVID restrictions, they stayed in Canada to play their own split-squad scrimmages.
Knies started the tournament playing on the fourth line. By the end of the tournament he was being used in as many games as Team USA could manage, played on the top lines with other top prospects, and was used in all situations. He finished tied for third in scoring in the tournament with 7 points in 6 games, and tied for the most among any USA player. He also had the most shots of anyone in the tournament. The coach raved about him.
And it was easy to see why. He had all the same strenghts I wrote about after the draft, but he was starting to show some of the high-end skill I thought was missing. I wrote about him and the two Finnish prospects the Leafs had in the same tournament in a summary of the WJSS.
The same things I wrote about in his post-draft profile were on display this tournament, but all of his strengths were turned up to 11... While I don’t think this means Knies is a lock to become the NHL’s greatest power forward, seeing the improvements in so short a time and at a high level is reassuring. It gives me an indication that his potential to be a supporting power forward in the NHL that could play in the top 6 as more of a realistic possibility, even if it’s still a long shot.
Where before his game, that I saw, was pretty straight forward and simple, but effective, in the WJSS he started adding dynamic elements to his game. He would pull off more toe drags out of nowhere, he would spin off checkers, he would make defenders look outright silly — including Topi Niemelä, our top defensive prospect.
So now I was starting to see what I’m sure the Leafs must have seen in Knies, when they chose him instead of trading down. But once again, when the NCAA season started, I was blown away by how much better he looked.
PART THREE: NCAA BREAKOUT
I was really hoping to finish this section after the World Juniors, so I’d have a big stage, high stakes tournament against the best of his peers to draw from. Unfortunately, as of writing this the tournament has just been cancelled. So I’ll make do with the two WJC games he played with his NCAA season to date.
Simply put, what you started to see in the development of Knies’ game in the summer has continued in a big way through this season. In the USHL he never really flashed much high-end skill. In the summer tournament, he began flashing some examples of it now and then. In the NCAA and in the glimpse of the World Juniors, those flashes became more common to the point that high end skill is now just a regular part of his game. All while still showing off what has always been strengths: his effort, skating, shot, size and physicality, and knowing how to use everything in his toolbox effectively.
First, there’s his effort, skating, and his hands. He can use it to great effect everywhere on the ice. In the offensive zone, he uses these tools to harass the other team to turn the puck over on the forecheck, and prolong the offensive zone possession for his team. He has generated a few scoring chances and I think two points off of plays exactly like the gif below (I just don’t have them in a gif). He forces a turnover at the blueline and catches the other team trying to exit the zone:
(Note — in all of the gifs below, Knies wears #89)
I don’t know if he’ll be at the same level of using his stick to steal the puck like Matthews, Marner and Nylander do in the NHL, but he’ll be another guy with a pesky stick combined with his long reach to be a major annoyance for his opponents.
There are other ways he is a menace on the forecheck. With his combination of size and skating, he is an intimidating force coming down on defensemen after he dumps the puck in. If he doesn’t outright beat the defender to the puck, he can effectively shove them off balance to steal it from them. He could also just knock the defender on his ass.
He is a good skater, though probably shy of elite. He can be quick and powerful in a straight line but he’s not the quickest to get up to speed. What he is, is very strong on his feet. He’s not Frederick Gauthier, who was big but would get knocked off his skates if a butterfly sneezed anywhere in a 10 mile radius. He is very difficult to knock off balance, which helps him protect the puck on the cycle, but also makes him difficult for defenders to handle on dump ins.
And if the defender tries to slow him down by closing on him aggressively before he dumps it in, Knies has quick reaction time and slick hands to use this clever little chip and dodge play to go around them:
Knies with a clever zone entry here pic.twitter.com/1r7KkfrmTr— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) December 27, 2021
Most exciting is Knies’ work with the puck, which has developed in leaps and bounds since last season in the USHL. Back then, he was pretty straight forward. Carry the puck, dump and pursue it, protect it on the cycle, and try and get the puck to the net for a dirty goal or a snipe using his good, hard wrist shot. Now, he’s shortened the time it takes him to get his shot off, but he can also pull off some filthy dangles. He can pull off the toe drag, and use little feints, shoulder fakes, and other forms of deception to get defenders off balance so he can stick handle past them.
Those last two dangles included Knies beating Luke Hughes and Owen Power, two of the top defensive prospects in the world. He is getting more creative, and confidence in his skill, to pull off moves like the above with regularity, even against top competition.
The other area with the puck that has improved by quite a lot is his passing. When he has the puck, he is not strictly one-dimensional where he will try to dangle or shoot. Even if he is big and strong, good defenses can work to neutralize him by making him get rid of the puck, and trying to get it back off a bad pass or taking it off his linemates. Now, he can make good plays to set up a teammate when the chance isn’t there for him.
And this is another example where Knies’ physical tools help him. Because he’s bigger, he can see the ice better to know where his teammates are. He still has good awareness to scan the ice, but his height definitely helps — as does his reach. Smaller defenders can try to reach for the puck or stretch their stick along the ice to block a passing lane, but Knies can reach past them to still make the pass without as much of a threat of it being deflected, blocked or stolen.
Passing and playmaking with the puck may be his weaker offensive skill, but it has improved enough that it won’t hold him back. He can make soft touch passes, including little saucer passes, to his teammate in stride. He can fire stretch passes through the neutral zone to get the puck up quicker. He can hit a teammate with a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone for a good scoring chance. And he has the skill with his stick to pull off that ridiculous through the legs backhand pass above.
PART FOUR: HIS FUTURE
Knies will finish this season in the NCAA, and is almost guaranteed to return for one more season after this. After that is the question. It is not unheard of for top prospects to finish their NCAA tenure after only two seasons, and Knies is a bit of an older prospect as an October birthday who did not play his draft year in the NCAA like, say, Kent Johnson or Owen Power. If Knies signs an ELC to turn pro after next season, he will be 20 years old. It’s hard to say what he will decide that far into the future.
What will dictate his decision is how much more he develops by the end of last season. He’s already come a long way since being drafted, in less than a full season. He already has a large variety of tools to work with, but he can refine them further. His skating can become quicker and more explosive. He can improve his horizontal mobility. He can improve the accuracy of his passing. The more he becomes an even better all-round player in the NCAA, the greater the chance that he decides to make the jump to pro earlier. He is already close to a point per game, and one of the leading freshmen in the NCAA for points. If he takes a big jump next season and becomes one of the all-round best players in the entire NCAA, that could entice him and the Leafs into bringing him to the pro leagues sooner rather than later.
As of now, I would lay odds that he returns for a third NCAA season. He can sign his ELC after that and join the Marlies or Leafs towards the end of their seasons and into the playoffs, like Cale Makar or Cole Caufield have done in recent memory.
But I have to say, everything Knies has done this season has me so god damned excited for his potential. I don’t know what voodoo black sorcery Dubas and his team performed to see this potential in him at the draft when none of it was easily apparent, but those scouts deserve a big raise.
If I were to do a ranking of all the Leafs’ prospects right now, I’d be sorely tempted to put him number one — yes, even ahead of Robertson, Amirov, and Niemelä. He had as big of a leap in his development as any of them, without the uncertainty of his future chances caused by injury or size concerns that the other three might have. He could become one of the top power forwards in the NHL with his combination of size, physicality and skill. It would give the Leafs something they don’t have a lot of on their NHL roster right now. I can easily envision a scenario where acts as a top-tier supporting winger in the top six with the likes of Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander.
He can also play in all situations. In both the NCAA and at the WJC, Knies was used both on the powerplay and on the penalty kill. On the powerplay, he can use his size, shot, and strength on his skates to move between the front or side of the net. He may sometimes come a bit further out to retrieve a puck, where he can utilize his good shot. On the penalty kill, he uses his large reach and quick stick to cover a wide area of the ice to look for deflections and interceptions, or to pounce on loose pucks to clear it down the ice.
So while it is unfortunate that he didn’t get to play a full tournament at the World Juniors, we can look forward to seeing him continue his development in the NCAA. He and his line have already been given more of a role due to how productive and dangerous they’ve been, and he’s seen increased usage on special teams and late in games — whether they’re protecting a lead or trying to tie it up.
So I don’t know where the hell Matthew Knies came from this year, but man am I glad that someone with the Leafs did.