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That's it, that's the article.

What? You want more. Okay, fine.

Matthew Knies Vitals
Age as of July 1 20.7
Position LW
Height 6'2"
Weight (lbs) 210
Shoots L
Draft Year 2021
Draft Number 57

I find it absolutely delightful that Matthew Knies is actually a Leafs cliché. Born in Arizona to an immigrant family, grew up playing hockey in a town where it's not exactly the first thing an athletic boy chooses, and ultimately arrives in Toronto to make an impact in his first game. Okay, fine. He didn't score four goals. But it's still funny.

Knies is an inheritor of the hockey expansion system the NHL has been committed to for most of this century. He played on the Jr. Coyotes before he entered the USHL system, leaving home at 16 for Kearney, Nebraska, the home of the Tri-City Storm. In this way, he's treading a path taken by Auston Matthews again, Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren – all left home very young to go to a better development environment.

Two years at the University of Minnesota and two tries at winning the Frozen Four followed before he turned a disappointment in Tampa into a triumphant debut with the Leafs in the playoffs. He played in one fewer game for the Leafs last year than Joe Woll, but made a much more impactful impression. Of course, if not for the takedown from Sam Bennett and the resulting concussion, he could have played more than seven playoff games.

The Player

This is a great feature that tells you who Knies is and how he got here:

A lot of the prospect discussion about Knies in the past has focused on the correct level of hype that should be produced around him. And I, willing and able to drive the hype train for him, underestimated him by a serious amount last year.

I forecast that he'd be in the AHL this year learning to be a pro, and here's how that's going to go. Brandon Pridham will have already written the memo outlining why the waivers-exempt Knies getting cut on the first day to avoid losing someone on waivers is a solid player management plan. It's his job, he's good at it, and he'll have made the best case for it. And Brad Treliving and Sheldon Keefe are going to refuse to read it and say no. Likely rather loudly.

To say Knies has outperformed his best-case scenario predictions of a year ago is an understatement, but at the same time, there is a caveat. I'm going to copy what I said last year about his game, because it's exactly how he played in the NHL:

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 to. 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 then I seem way less smart because I went on to suggest he'll go to the AHL to learn to be defensively useful. Nope. Which is an interesting problem for the Leafs. You can't not play this guy. Even on a team with better left wing options than the Leafs, you can't not play him. So he's got to do this the hard way, the way Matthews did, and Mitch Marner did. He has to augment his game in the NHL while still producing his offensive support role to the max. He might need some third-line grind time. But then conservative estimates of his progress have not been winning bets in the past. The hype train was late, it turns out, not overclocked.

Our job watching him is to not set expectations of his points totals too high. He's not a natural scorer. And this was why a lot of people were down on him before he burst onto the Leafs. He doesn't usually do what he was doing in that video up top, but he is good enough to be second unit power play out of training camp.

Knies spent his NCAA career playing as the troublemaker on a line of skilled forwards. The potential for him on the Leafs is to keep doing that with some of the best forwards in the NHL. How will he do living in their bigger shadow? I think excellently, and maybe I'm going to be wrong about his points.

Watch that feature he did last year where he quotes Shane Doan telling him when he was 16 to "be the best player, not the most skilled," and now take a breath and set aside the kneejerk reaction to Doan, and try for five seconds not to assume this is an entry in the endless skill vs grit culture war. What does it mean in a more nuanced world? That not every shift brings the opportunity to use your hot skills. Some of them are entirely in the defensive zone, some are boring, some are 10 seconds long and then someone took a penalty. But you do have to play all of those kinds of shifts like you think your job is to add value every second. If Knies can really live that, he's going to grow up fast in the NHL and be an excellent top-six power forward sooner rather than later.

The Votes

Last year I ranked Knies third behind Rasmus Sandin, and I wasn't sure about that at the time. I am now. It was wrong. This year, there was no question in our minds.

Voter Vote
adam 1
Brian 1
Hardev 1
Cathy 1
Catch-67 1
Species 1
dhammm 1
Zone Entry 1
bballgordie 1
The Bag 1
Weighted Average 1
Max Vote 1
Min Vote 1

What else is there to say? He's my favourite, he is the best young player on the team, I love him to bits, and he makes the game fun. I wish he was twins. Also, just to remind you: He isn't even 21 yet!!!

Other Thoughts

Brian: Not much more I can say about Knies considering how much I’ve written about him the past two years. I think he could and should become a fixture in the top six as a Hyman-like support player for their stars, because he does all those kinds of things so well already. The more he learns and adapts to the NHL, and improves in a few areas, the better he’ll become.

dhammm: For the first time in a long time, there is no top 10 draft pick with clear star potential and there is no young established star to grab the top of this list. Instead, we have two youngish defensemen with runway to grow into top-4 regulars but who are also in their last years of eligibility—and Matthew Knies, who surprised everyone by becoming a key playoff cog after showing up at the end of the season as an NCAA newbie. The refrain after the deadline was that it was unreasonable to expect Knies, a college prospect, to step out of college and into the NHL and be a difference-maker, but that's exactly what he did. For a team that struggled to move the puck up ice, gain the zone with possession, and drive the net with speed, Knies was an exception and a revelation. Of all the prospects on this list, he has one of the highest floors—he has already played high-intensity NHL hockey and been a force in his minutes—and has a high ceiling with time to reach it, given he can’t even legally drink in the States yet. He looks like a good bet to be an impact NHLer and maybe even a star. For that reason, he's my #1 for the 2023 T25U25, and I don't want to hear anything about sample sizes.

Catch-67: I really didn’t buy in all that much on the Knies hype until this year. That’s probably because I hadn’t actually watched him play. He does so many things right so consistently, and it was a real delight to watch him earn a role on the playoff roster late in the season. The hype probably makes this unnecessary to say, but he’s one of those players whose numbers miss so much of the story that you wonder what’s the point of ever looking at a prospect’s point totals. Which is not to say that his scoring in college was bad, but the things that make Knies such a phenomenal prospect are all in the things you see while watching him play (and might miss from a statline). The inverse trajectories of Knies and Robertson has really changed how I look at prospects, and the amount of assumptions I feel I can make when talking about prospects unless I’ve taken at least some time to watch them. Can’t wait to watch Knies’ rookie season.

The Bag: What struck me most about Knies’ time with the Leafs last year was that he played the game with audacity, completely unlike anyone on the Leafs not named Matthews or Marner. He’s obviously in a very different tier as a player, but it shocked me how much he played like he didn’t care that the other team was going to try to stop him. It was so refreshing it made me immediately like him. I have a very hard time imagining that anyone else on this list is likely to bring more value to the Leafs.

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