The Toronto Maple Leafs only had one pick in the first two rounds of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. With their first-round pick being sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Nick Foligno deal (used to select Corson Ceulemans), they didn’t make their selection until the 57th pick.
They made that selection count by drafting Matthew Knies from the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League.
Knies is only 14 games into his NCAA career with the University of Minnesota Gophers, but he’s already taking a major step forward in his development. I had him as a very early third-round pick in my 2021 final draft rankings, but the Maple Leafs swooped in and saw a player with great strength and offensive capabilities.
They’re definitely getting early rewards from this selection. Based on his early season production and consistency, he could’ve been selected higher up as a top-50 or even a top-40 pick. Even though the Maple Leafs have talented players in Nick Robertson and Rodion Amirov up front, Knies is steadily moving up the ranks to join them as top prospects.
Slow Start, Strong Finish in Draft Year
Already possessing an NHL-like frame at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Knies has established himself as a potential dynamic power forward from his time in the USHL.
Knies has a strong rookie campaign with the Storm, posting 45 points in 44 games. His sophomore and draft year didn’t go as planned as he dealt with some early season struggles. In his first 13 games, he had only two goals and four assists and was also tested positive for COVID-19.
Despite the slow start, Knies displayed his ability to bounce back in a positive way. This caught the attention of Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. Even when things aren’t going his way, he won’t give up and will elevate his play to another gear. He even got some great advice from Arizona Coyotes great Shane Doan to be the best player when he’s on the ice. It’s definitely paying off as he’s always noticeable.
Since that start, Knies produced above a point per game pace in the following 31 games as he finished with 36 points in that span, a 1.16 P/G. Of his 42 total points 32 were primary points, accounting for 76%. He had 20 primary points at even strength, eight were on the power play and four were short-handed. That’s really great production in all situations given the kind of start that he had.
If it weren’t for the early season struggles, Knies production would’ve surpassed his rookie season total and probably would’ve been improved his draft stock as a prospect.
Producing Consistently in NCAA
Being a freshman isn’t having an impact on Knies’ game with the Gophers as he doesn’t look out of place early on in his collegiate career. He currently ranks first in team scoring with 14 points in 14 games and is also tied for first on the team in goals with Samuel Walker.
In the midst of a five-game point streak (nine points in that span), Knies is already outproducing some other prospects that were drafted ahead of him, such as Detroit Red Wings second-round pick Shai Buium, Minnesota Wild’s Jack Peart and Florida Panthers first rounder Mackie Samoskevich. While it’s too early to tell and different players develop at a different pace, Knies’ early production as a freshman could be a sign that maybe he should’ve been drafted higher than where he was.
Knies currently sits third among freshman in points and is sixth in the NCAA in points per game with 1.00. Compared to other freshman that were drafted in 2021, only Josh Doan (1.25, Coyotes), Matthew Coronato (1.14, Calgary Flames) have better averages than Knies. In addition, he’s taken the third most shots with 43 (second on the Gophers) showing that he’s always a shooting threat when he’s on the ice.
It’s safe to stay that Knies’ first season in a highly competitive level of hockey is going extremely well. He’s always out there being a force with his intensity and smarts, excelling in all aspects. While he’s a few years away, when Knies makes it to the NHL, it’s going to be worth the wait.
Breaking Down Knies’ Game
Knies has a knack for being a major difference maker offensively. He has great speed and mobility for his size, being a real threat in transition and beating defenders to the outside with ease. His hands and puck handling makes him hard to contain in tight areas, especially when he’s in front of the net. He can also be lethal from long range with his powerful and accurate shot. That blend of size, strength, speed and skill is definitely something that the Maple Leafs were lacking. Knies checks off all of those boxes.
Here’s a clip of one of his goals from one of the Gophers’ recent games.
Right off the faceoff, Knies is able to gain possession of the puck and immediately turns around for a shot attempt. As the play unfolds behind the net, he then moves himself into the high danger area to receive the pass. He’s able to get a good shot off the crossbar, but sticks with the play to attack the net and get his own rebound for the goal.
The awareness he has to not give up and get a second chance opportunity is a valuable asset. With his speed to get into those spots and make sure he gets those multiple chances, it’s going to go well for him and the Maple Leafs as they prioritize this kind of play. He always knows where to go and put himself in the best spot to be a threat.
Even in the World Junior Summer Showcase for Team USA, Knies put forth a really great showing with five points in three games. This next clip displays his shot from long range and his ability to be relied on in key late game situations.
In the dying moments of their game against Finland, as the puck is along the corner, Knies remains out of sight and easily opens himself up to receive a pass. As soon as the puck comes to him, he immediately gets into a perfect shooting position. He slightly curls the puck in, similar to that of Auston Matthews and wires it with perfect accuracy top corner to tie the game.
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You give Knies the time to setup, expect him to put everything he has into his shot as he has tremendous power. Even if a player thinks they closed in on him, the quick release he has in his wrist shot allows him to get the puck off in a flash.
Knies is an all-round offense threat, but he has a keen ability to break up plays to create turnovers. He has a long reach and is always in a great spot to intercept a pass and regain control of the puck. The fact that he can be reliable defensively and a threat in the offensive zone shows his versatile skillset as a player.
Even though the Maple Leafs had one pick in the first two rounds in the 2021 draft, they sure made it count by selecting Knies. He’s a complete package player that plays with a high level of pace and determination and makes the Maple Leafs’ prospect pool even more talented.
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.