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Saturday FTB: Matt Knies is heating up

Prospect catch up for you this morning.

2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship - Northeast Regional Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

It me, the guy who talks too much about prospects.

Matthew Knies

Matt Knies has been a revelation for Minnesota, who went into this year as one of the top ranked NCAA teams in part because they were returning a lot of their older players. Knies, a rookie, has made an immediate impact on the team as a rookie, playing on the powerplay and working up to their top line.

Last night, Knies’ line scored all three goals for Minnesota and Knies himself had a goal and two primary assists.

You’ll notice how all of these goals are scored. Knies takes the puck to the net, causes chaos in front and either he or a teammate puts the puck in off a rebound or scramble. That doesn’t mean he can’t score some highlight reel goals either, but this kind of greasy net-front goal is likely going to be his bread and butter in the NHL. That and goals scored off his aggressive forecheck.

With those three points, Knies is up to 12 points in 13 NCAA games. That’s tied for second on his team and just outside the top 5 of the NCAA for 2021 drafted players — behind top prospects like Kent Johnson, Owen Power, Matt Beniers, and Luke Hughes. He’ll be playing for Team USA at the World Juniors and could well be playing a top role for them.

Ty Voit

Voit has been the model of consistency for Sarnia in the OHL this year. With his goal against the London Knights last night, he not only made a lifelong fan of his in Elseldo, but he also now has a point in 12 of the 13 games he has played. In total, he has 17 points in 13 games. That puts him in a tie for seventh in the OHL among players from the 2021 draft year, and behind some others who have played a few more games.

He’s come as advertised, a classic zippy little winger. He’s quick, he can dangle, he is a good passer and playmaker, and he can put up points. Not an elite amount of points — at least not so far — but as a 5th round pick he’s doing about as well as you could hope for.

For him to show he was a steal, he’ll have to start putting himself in that tier of elite junior players in the OHL. And I don’t mean points, necessarily. He needs to be a dominant offensive force, because he probably isn’t going to be anything but an average defensive winger.

Braeden Kressler

Kressler is basically Ty Voit’s opposite, in that he is less an offensive force that puts up points and more of a two-way guy who’s strength is as a defensive minded center who can drive play and contribute some points. Kressler is Flint’s first line center, though he only has 7 points in 12 games so far. He was signed as an undrafted free agent, though he is the same draft year as Ty Voit.

Kressler won’t last as a top line center once he leaves the OHL. He’ll be more of a Pontus Holmberg kind of center, but smaller. The strengths in his game are the little things that are hard to notice but add up to providing a positive impact. The big question is if someone who’s only 5’9” can hack it as a two-way forward. Yanni Gourde has done it, but he’s a rarity — an exception more than a rule. And Gourde in his D+1 season was a point per game in the QMJHL, then exploded to become a 2 point per game player in his final season.

The point is, you have to be at least good enough at offense in the NHL to justify your existence. Just like Ty Voit cannot afford to be a complete non-factor defensively even if he puts up a lot of points — we have Jeremy Bracco as a bad example of that, or Mitch Marner as a positive one. He’s a calming joy to watch though. He’s not exciting, but it’s nice to see someone just play the game like that. It’s a warm safety blanket.

Joe Miller

Joe Miller is an interesting one. He’s basically another Ty Voit — a small, offensively minded winger whose strength lies in passing and playmaking instead of scoring goals. Despite being a 2020 draft pick, he’s only a month younger than Matthew Knies. As a September 15h, 2002 birthday he was born on the exact cutoff day to still be eligible for that year’s draft. Matthew Knies, on the other hand, was born October 17th, 2002, a month and a day after that cutoff.

So despite Miller being drafted a full year before Knies, they’re almost the same age. Funnily enough, Miller is set to join the same Minnesota team in the NCAA as Knies and other Leafs’ prospect. For now he’s playing for the powerhouse Chicago Steel in the USHL, where he has 16 points in 17 games. He’s been used all throughout the lineup, including the powerplay and penalty kill, and when he’s had bursts of points is usually when he’s played up the lineup with top prospect Adam Fantilli as the trigger man for his playmaking. He’s another longshot, but he already has more of a two-way game than Voit.

Topi Niemelä

Niemelä has by far had the biggest surprise breakout of any Leafs’ prospect this season. He was drafted based on his defense and smart play with and without the puck, especially on transitions. But after his game on Thursday where he had a goal and an assist, he tied for the lead in points in the entire Liiga with 20. It is unprecedented for a 19 year old defenseman in the Liiga to have this kind of season offensively, and it wasn’t even his calling card as a prospect!

The emerging view of Niemelä is that he is a less-dynamic but better skating and better defensive version of Rasmus Sandin. He’s not that big, and adding muscle will help him as he comes to the AHL and NHL. But he’s very smart, he makes good plays to elude forecheckers and get the puck out of the zone by either passing or skating away from pressure.

At this point the Leafs should want to get Niemelä to the AHL as soon as his season is over, and keep him there next season. That jump in difficulty is no joke, and it will be very revealing to see how he develops and adapts to North American pro. By the end of the year there is a good chance we all include Niemelä in the same tier of prospects as Robertson, Amirov and Sandin were entering this season.

Axel Rindell

Rindell is 21 years old, so he’s already an older prospect. He’s two years older than Niemelä, also a defenseman, and for the past four games he’s actually been Niemelä’s teammate on Kärpät. He is more of a pure offensive defenseman. He does not have Niemelä’s skating or defensive chops despite being two years older, but neither does he have such an overwhelmingly good offensive season like this season.

Or does he? Until this season, Rindell spent his whole career playing on Jukurit who have been one of the worst teams in the Liiga the past few years. Since joining Kärpät during a mid-season trade, Rindell has caught fire. He has 8 points in his 4 games since that trade.

He’s done it mostly with his skating and his passing. While Rindell is not as good a skater, he’s still at least good. Two of the assists he had in his last game came off him carrying the puck into the offensive zone and making a good pass to set up a scoring chance.

There’s a good chance that he may come over to North America and the AHL after this season as well, as part of the Finnish invasion with Hirvonen, Kokkonen, and Niemelä. I’m not as sold on Rindell. He’s a pretty good offensive defenseman in the Liiga, which is far away from the NHL. He’ll have to be so good offensively that he can beat out the likes of Morgan Rielly, Rasmus Sandin and Topi Niemelä for a powerplay spot if he ever makes the NHL. He’s not going to make it as a penalty killer, and he won’t have the defensive chops of even Dermott or Holl.

ONTO THE LINKS

Marlies Recap: two good weekends on the road end with an ugly loss at home | by Species

Leafs Notebook: A promising start to Dean Chynoweth’s tenure, TJ Brodie finding his form, Timothy Liljegren’s emergence, & Toronto’s Big Four taking flight | by MLHS

Keith Petruzzelli is a Growlers prospect to keep an eye on | by TLN

Maple Leafs prospect report: Erik Kallgren adapting with the Marlies, Alex Steeves learning his role | by The Athletic

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