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Breaking Down the Maple Leafs’ second round pick: Matthew Knies

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Taking a deeper dive into Knies’ history, scouting reports, and a few of his USHL games

NHLI via Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Matthew Knies in the second round. My initial reaction in the comment section of that news piece was that I didn’t like it, mostly because I was really hoping for a different player or to trade down. I’ve taken the time to research him some more, and through the rest of the day I watched three games of his in the USHL from the past season.

This has helped change my view on Knies and the pick, at least a bit. It’s also helped for me to gain a lot more context about him.

CONTEXT AND BACKSTORY

In the 2019/20 season, Matthew Knies had an outstanding season. He was coming off a rookie season in the USHL with 45 points in 44 games, which was was the most by any 2021 draft eligible player. He was ahead of Matthew Beniers (2nd OA), Matt Coronato (13th OA), Chaz Lucius (18th OA), and Mackie Samoskevich (24 OA) who were all first round picks this year.

A point per game in your D-1 season in the USHL? When you’re also a big guy who can skate? Knies entered this season widely considered to wind up being a first round pick as well.

But that didn’t happen. He finished this season with 42 points in 44 games. So he had three fewer points in as many games, when he was one year older. It was a bit of a step back, and his draft rankings slipped. Most people’s first rankings this season came out in December. At that point, Knies had only played in 8 games between November and December and had 2 points. So he was left off the first rankings of the year, which usually only include the first round. In Bob McKenzie’s mid-season rankings, he was 59th. In his final rankings, he was 62nd.

So Knies went from what seemed like a potential late first round pick at least to barely being ranked in the second round. What happened?

Well, it started off bad when Knies began the season recovering from a concussion. That’s why he missed around 8 games, mostly at the start of the season. That’s also probably why he had such a slow start.

But he actually finished the season on a tear. He played on their top line, on the top powerplay unit, and got some time on the penalty kill as well. Here’s his points and point per game pace by month:

  • Nov = 1 point, 0.25 ppg
  • Dec = 1 point, 0.25 ppg
  • Jan = 10 points, 1.00 ppg
  • Feb = 6 points, 0.67 ppg
  • Mar = 8 points, 1.14 ppg
  • Apr = 16 points, 1.60 ppg

His shot rate also increased in a similar fashion month over month. By the end of the season, Knies was looking more like the prospect people thought he’d be at the start of the year. I know how much Katya loves when people do this, but if you take out Knies’ first two months and imagine he stayed healthy the whole year, he’d have finished third in the USHL among draft eligibles in points, behind only Coronato and Josh Doan (an overager). Though his point per game rate would have been 6th.

That’s part of the reason why Knies was invited by Hockey USA to join one of their two World Junior Summer Showcase rosters, giving him at least a chance of being on their final World Junior Championship roster this coming winter.

And not everyone was that down on Knies. Here are his final rankings:

  • Bob McKenzie: 62nd
  • Elite Prospects: 66th
  • Future Considerations: 52nd
  • McKeen’s Hockey: 81st
  • Dobber Prospects: 62nd
  • Smaht Scouting: 61st
  • Scott Wheeler: 75th

These rankings paint Knies as maybe being taken a bit early, but he was probably considered in the same tier of guys who were taken between 57th and where his various rankings were.

So after looking into his profile and stats, he does appear to maybe have a bit more than you could initially see on the surface. I decided to watch some of his games, read more scouting reports, and see what I can learn about the Leafs’ new second round pick.

STRENGTHS

Skating

According to people who you can actually trust to analyze a players’ skating mechanics, Knies is a good skater especially in a straight line. He has good speed and acceleration, and his mechanics are sound. It can get a bit iffy with his crossovers which will need to be improved upon, but skating is definitely a strength overall. He’s not an elite skater by any means, at least not yet. The Leafs being able to improve his explosiveness, crossovers and lateral mobility could turn him into a borderline-elite skater.

Shot

In the same vein, Knies also appears to have a good wrist shot. It can be quick, accurate and has some power behind it. When he was used on the powerplay, he alternated between net front and on the point. When positioned at the point, he’d look to use his heavy wrist shot to snipe the occasional goal, but more often would cause a scrum off a rebound as it isn’t easy for goalies to stop and smother. He’s used it to beat goalies from some distance in his USHL career so far, and will hopefully be something that the Leafs can also help him improve to make it a greater strength.

Puck Protection

Knies has a good combination of size, skating, and awareness for how to position his body in order to protect the puck. He also knows how to gain leverage on a defender to get a step on him and then bully his way past them. When it comes to ability to create scoring chances, this is one of the main ways that Knies can do that. There was a play in a playoff game I watched where he had a defender of similar size all over him, but he kept the puck on a string around the net, up the boards, and was able to cut into the middle when his defender was off-balance. That freed him up to feed his defenseman creeping in from the point for an open look.

Transition

If there’s a particular strength of Knies’ game that isn’t a mechanical skill, but a way to impact the game for his team’s favour, it’s his offensive transition game. He has the speed to blow by defenders, and good enough deception and maneuverability to get around teams that try to cut him off and box him in. Some of the best ways to have an impact on scoring chances, for and against, is to be good at driving offensive transitions or shutting down transition attempts against. Knies has been very good at the former, and it shoes in his tracking data:

Credit: Mitch Brown’s Patreon for USHL tracking data

Forechecking

The other part that shows up in the above data is his forechecking, specifically his offensive zone retrievals. If Knies gets a lot of comparisons to Zach Hyman, this is arguably where that actually makes sense. He is very effective at the chip and chase part of hockey, where he dumps the puck in to a good area for him to use his skating and chase it down. He either gets to the puck first, or gets on top of the other team quickly and then uses his size and smart forechecking technique to strip them or knock it loose, so his team can gain possession.

He also has that Zach Hyman-like bulldog mentality when he’s forechecking, in that he doesn’t give anything up. He is constantly moving and working to hound the other team. More than a few times I watched him keep a play alive in the offensive zone by stripping the other team of the puck before they could break it out. He managed to create an offensive chance on a dump out by his team where his linemates all changed. He chased after two defenders by himself, and created a turnover after his chase and harassments of the puck carrier. That turnover was picked up by his teammates that just hopped on the ice, which led to a scramble in front, and they scored a big goal that earned him a secondary assist. Secondary assists are pretty meaningless, but that goal doesn’t happen without his forechecking.

Net-Front Play

To complete the power forward profile, Knies is said to have good skill in front of the net. Some of that will be his size, but he’s also smart with his positioning to either stay open or stay involved in the play even without the puck. But he also is said to have good puck handling in tight spaces, and with his shot can generate good chances off rebounds and passes into the slot.

In one of the games I watched, a playoff game against the Championship runner-up Fargo Force, he scored a nice goal on a deflection. Being able to tip pucks from point shots and retrieve/score off rebounds will be a good way for him to have better production at higher levels.

WEAKNESSES

Playmaking

One area where I hope Knies can get better is his ability to make plays, especially when forced. He has a nice, simple but effective type of game that goes in a straight line. Drive through the neutral zone, chip the puck in, go and get it, go to the net, and so on. But he is not necessarily a good player at creating chances with the puck on his stick unless its off a transition. When he has the puck, he’s most effective with the defenders beside or behind him, either because he’s working the cycle or on a rush. With a defender in front of him, he needs speed to get by them, but that mostly only works for him in transition. In the offensive zone, he relies more on size and strength to try and get a step on them so he can cut into more dangerous areas. But usually, he’ll try and get rid of the puck and then go to the dangerous areas without it.

He can be deceptive and does have some good hands, but he can’t really dangle at a very high level. He can make good passes, but can’t necessarily find more difficult passing lanes to his teammates and will never be mistaken for a set up guy. This is another area where you can compare him to Hyman. He’s not a complete plug with the puck, but he’ll probably need to rely on his linemates to do a lot of the scoring chance creation in the offensive zone with the puck while he helps in other ways. He’ll need players to create a scoring chance for him, in other words.

High-End Skill

Which brings me to perhaps his biggest issue. Knies just seems to lack any really high-end skills. His shot and skating are good, his deception with the puck is good, his overall passing is good, his awareness is good, and he has some good size to go with all of that. But there’s nothing about him that is elite, and while I will always want a guy who can skate, we as Leafs fans know how limiting it can be when you don’t also have some high end skill to go with it. That may be the biggest concern for Knies as far as how he developed this year compared to last year, when he showed so much promise. He didn’t seem to gain or develop the skills he had a year ago into something noticeably more special over this season. We may have gotten some glimpses of it later in the season, but that’s not a lot to go on.

In one game I watched, he scored a short handed goal by toe dragging past a defenseman, but the defense was... not exactly high tier. He did get around him, get a shot, pick up the rebound and score off a wrap around. He can flash some skill, and will try some things, but it doesn’t look like it’s at a level I would expect him to pull off at higher levels against better defenses.

Defensive Play

The motor, work ethic, puck hounding and puck stripping that Knies shows while forechecking does not seem to be there on the other side of the puck. He’s not very active in the defensive zone, nor is he that aggressive in pursuing the puck carrier through the neutral zone. Often I would see him as the last forward back for his team, though he was also usually the forward playing the deepest in the offensive zone, either in front of or behind the net. It’s the kind of thing where I think that his tools that he uses offensively could also be applied defensively, but as a winger I don’t expect him to have a major impact on the defensive side of the game anyways. Zach Hyman wasn’t either, if we’re keeping up that comparison.

PROJECTION

This feels like a safer pick, in that Knies seems to have the tools that will help him make the NHL compared to other players drafted around him. But the question will be how high does he make it? What he’s good at will likely make him at least a bottom 6 energy guy who is good on the forecheck and can create chances for his linemates through his transition play and puck hounding. That’s what any scouting report I read forecasts him to be, and I can’t say I disagree after watching three of his games.

But his lack of high end skill will likely mean that’s as high as he gets... or does it? Hyman never seemed to have high end skills either, but he was just such a highly effective player in a few valuable areas that it didn’t matter. The same could be true for Knies, and I’m guessing that the Leafs are expecting that he will develop into something like Hyman.

I think the Leafs believe there is more to Knies than we saw in his draft season, which just looked okay overall and not great. He was an exceptional rookie for his age the season before. He looked more of a premier power forward in the USHL down the stretch. Dubas even said that Knies is someone they’ve tracked for a few years now, and mentioned they liked how he looked to end the year and in the playoffs.

It’s all a question of how he develops now. He’s going to play next season for the University of Minnesota, which is a strong NCAA program and will include another Leafs prospect in Mike Koster (who also played for Tri-City in the USHL... go figure). If he can develop some more dynamic skill, refine his skating to improve his mobility, then you start to wonder about having a power forward who can play a supporting role in the top 6. But that won’t come for probably 3+ years.

One other thing I kind of suspect is that prospects of Knies’ calibre are also much more tradeable than the small zippy winger that has been the stereotype of what Dubas likes to take in the draft. So if the Leafs want to make a trade for an NHL player that helps them contend now, Knies taking off in the NCAA may make him valuable to other teams who value big power forwards. But it’s also clear from Dubas’ history that he values a player like Knies. If we’re going to compare him to Hyman, and we love Hyman, and Dubas traded for Hyman, it should not be astonishing that he would like Knies.

CONCLUSIONS: WAS THIS A GOOD PICK?

Yes, I think Knies was a good* pick. That asterisk is a qualifier, for two reasons. First, It’s not the pick I would have made. I would have either taken Robertsson or traded down.

Dubas mentions they talked about trading down but decided to take Knies in the end. I’ve always said that Dubas drafts by looking for good value at each draft spot. Usually that has meant taking a small guy who falls, or taking an overager, or someone with a big flaw they think they can fix. I think with Knies, this may still be the case.

Knies was a higher profile guy going into this year that they’ve liked for a while. His draft stock took a hit from a year that looked like his development flatlined instead of growing. Maybe they think his end to the season is showing that he is better than that, and the concussion he was recovering from was a factor in his earlier season struggles.

If they’re right, and if between the Leafs and the University of Minnesota they can develop him into a premier power forward, that’s a good get in the late second round. He may have his flaws, but so do all prospects taken around his spot. And that’s the second qualifier. If the Leafs legitimately have reason to believe that he can turn into a top 6 guy then I’m willing to reserve full judgement until we see how Knies looks in the NCAA next season. I do not believe that Dubas is the kind of GM to take a player “for a role” or just to replace a guy they’re losing in free agency, not when it would take a few years to even get to the NHL. He’s said that very thing about Amirov last year, for example.

Because if that is the case, then me not liking the pick as much as Robertsson is because I see him as more of a potential top 6 guy in the future, where I see Knies as more likely a bottom 6 guy. But Dubas and his scouts will know these players a lot better than I do, and I will cede to their experience and expertise. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen people like Kevin Papetti already say they like the pick a lot. I’m a relative rookie at this sort of thing, so the more I’ve read about Knies and the more I’ve seen people’s opinions on him — weaknesses included — the more I can accept that this is a good pick.

Poll

Do you like the Knies pick in the second round?

This poll is closed

  • 61%
    I 100% like the pick, it was the right one to make
    (157 votes)
  • 18%
    I like it, but I think Dubas could have taken someone better
    (47 votes)
  • 14%
    I preferred to trade down
    (37 votes)
  • 5%
    I don’t like the pick at all
    (15 votes)
256 votes total Vote Now