The 2021 draft had two physically mature, taller than average players who looked ready for the NHL. They both played in the Olympics this spring, they both looked like they completely belonged on those men’s teams. They both played NCAA hockey, and they both lost in the semifinals of the Frozen Four. And both of them get quite a lot of the “he’s just big” label applied to them. It’s obvious folly when it’s applied to Owen Power, since he took to the NHL on arrival as easily as he had Team Canada, but what about Matt Knies, who is not a first overall like Power?

Don’t tell me that a lot of fans weren’t bitterly disappointed that the Toronto Maple Leafs had the temerity to draft a big guy last year. Because I know they were. I know there were a large number of people who would have rather had Ty Voit in round two. And when Knies played in the Olympics, had a wonderful NCAA season, started the first WJC with a bang, most people got over that. But say his name now and a dozen people chant in unison, “but his skating, though” because they just can’t help themselves. He’s not the symbol of the new era of hockey they want to cheer for. He’s not Alex DeBrincat. You can’t make infantilizing comments about how tiny he is. He doesn’t democratize hockey or show up the people who foolishly said you had to be big to play the game.

The lacklustre play by Team USA at the WJC the second time has been a boon to the industry of deciding that the hype on Knies is overblown, and he’s not that good, and he’s never going to be a top-six NHLer, and maybe he’s just big.

I say all this because I picked Knies to write about because I wanted to be extremely positive about someone in this T25, and he’s the guy. It’s no secret the Leafs prospect pool is weak — it’s supposed to be when you’ve been a top team in the NHL for years. When you have to include all the recent seventh-round picks in the T25 and talk about them like they’re really going to be someone, it wears you down. It also plays tricks on your mind and you start forgetting that the gap between Matt Knies and Brandon Lisowsky is more than six inches, 34 pounds and 22 ranking spots.

Matt Knies is the Leafs top prospect (because Sandin is already an NHLer), a genuine player, and he has an NHL future.

The Player

Knies does help to democratize hockey, just not by challenging old ideas about size. But for Leafs fans, we’ve heard all this before. Child of immigrants, check. Lives in Arizona, check. Worked with that one skill coach in Phoenix, check. Grew up watching the Yotes, check. Had to leave home for high school hockey, check. We’re one Sportsnet feature that includes a recipe for bryndzové halušky away from yawning whenever we hear his name.

Knies’ familiar backstory might just be the other thing driving the hype and counter-hype cycle. Matthew is not Matthews. He was drafted in the second round, in the Nick Robertson zone, he’s not a straight from the draft to the top line player. He may not end up a top-six player at all, and if that disappoints you, well, to be blunt about it, cheer for the Yotes, they have a lot of draft picks and prospects. The Leafs already have those, and they’ve been in the NHL for years.

There is another universe where Knies left the NCAA the same time Power did and joined the Leafs last spring. If he had done that, and got in nine games and then watched the playoffs from the pressbox, we’d be debating today where he’d play next season. Let’s pretend he did that. Let’s pretend he played nine games in the bottom six, did a lot of interviews marvelling at how hard guys like Engvall and Kämpf work, and had one goal while looking tough in the corners. What would we think today?

I would bet that result would be disappointing (I gave him Olympic linemate Nick Aburzzese’s results). My assumption, had he done all that, is that he would be heading for the Marlies, and the toughest year of his life. He’d be expected to play the top line every game — lower ranked prospects get games off in the AHL, not the top guys. He’d play top unit power play and the penalty kill, he’d be expected to be on the ice in key situations, and to take responsibility for the outcome of the games. They wouldn’t name a captain, but they’d give him an A and expect him to act like it’s a C.

He’s going to get all that plus some college classes in Minnesota, but it’s not going to hit him as hard as a year in the AHL would. It’s not going to show him how tough the NHL is. He might find second year college course work a bigger drain on him than another year in the NCAA where he is comfortable and knows exactly how to go about succeeding.

His trip to the Leafs will be in the spring of 2023, and his AHL hell year will be 2023-2024, and I believe fervently he’s up for it. I’ve never believed in any player in the Leafs system, taken outside the first round, as much as I believe in Matthew Knies.

If Michael Bunting and Pierre Engvall had a transporter accident and ended up like Tuvix, you’d have a guy that Matt Knies would be aspiring too. Actually, judging by his attitude, you’d have the guy he’d want to beat. He’s aggressive around the net, and he wants the opposing goalie to know what cologne he wears. He seems upset when someone else takes on a corner battle. He’s the first man in, he wants the puck, and he also seems very aware he isn’t Auston Matthews with it. He will pass it.

He isn’t the fastest skater, and he doesn’t quite have Engvall’s stride length (or Swedish youth coaches) to make up for it. He has the tools, however, to be a force in the defensive zone, and that’s what the AHL will be for. If a guy like Alex Steeves needs to be converted to a role player, Knies needs to be augmented with a complete game. It’s not quite the same sort of levelling up.

And yes, we are going to have to wait for this to begin for another year. And no, he’s not going to walk onto the NHL team and take over a top-six spot. Consider two other players in the NHL now who’ve gone from a spot in the 50s to an impact NHL career. William Karlsson needed years in the SHL, the AHL and a bad NHL team before he exploded into a power scorer. Nikita Kucherov needed another year in Russian junior, one in Canadian junior, some AHL time and then he laid down 29 goals in 82 games four years post-draft. Even though Knies doesn’t have that level of scoring talent, that timeline is just about perfect to set your expectations to.

Patience isn’t a virtue hockey fans aspire to, but patience will pay off with Knies.

The Votes

I ranked Knies and Rasmus Sandin at 2.5 each and the very last thing I did with my votes was break that tie. I’m not sure I chose correctly. I never really made up my mind between Mitch Marner and William Nylander in this position, and now that the level of players to choose from is considerably lower, it’s not actually easier to pick.

Matt Knies Votes

Josh - Smaht Scouting3
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Polak3
Weighted Average2.89
Highest Rank2
Lowest Rank5
Spread in Votes3

A spread in rankings between two and five is pretty large for a player this high up in the order. I’m not sure how much that’s about Knies himself and how much it’s about the wider ranging opinions on Rasmus Sandin, but we’ll discuss that tomorrow (hope that didn’t give too much away).

dhammm: Knies surpassed expectations as a 2nd round pick and is now in the honeymoon period that Robertson was after his D+1. Knies is likely to make the NHL and is likely to be an impact contributor when he makes it. That puts him near the top of any reasonable ranking of the Leafs’ top 25 under 25. Enjoy the adulation while it lasts, my man. Hope we see you with the big club next spring.

Brigstew: Knies is another case of a guy that made huge strides last season compared to the expectations on him going into the year, but I also think the hype machine blew past reality. I think he is a virtual lock to be an NHLer, he showed a surprising amount of skill and his size and physical game is already very mature. But he lacks more dynamic skill, especially with his playmaking. His raw skills and quick reactions with the puck make him very effective, and he may still wind up in the top six playing a supporting, forechecking role on Matthews or Tavares’ wing. One of the few players in Toronto’s system that seem like they could be an impact, top six forward.

TomK421: He’ll be #1 next year. Book it.

Hardev: I like him a lot for what he brings offensively as a power forward so I bet on his upside and usefulness putting him above the young defenders and Robertson. This could all be pure overhype, so we’ll see where things end up next season. And by the way, I respected his decision to stay in college and try for a championship with his teammates. It would’ve been really easy to bail, but recognized he has unfinished business.

Where do you rank Knies on the not-Matthews U25 list?

Lower than that39