Knies building momentum, creating buzz ahead of Leafs camp
What has been the welcome-to-the-Leafs moment for Easton Cowan so far?
"Last night we were eating dinner and just seeing Matthew Knies and how big he is," the London Knights forward, Toronto's first round pick in June's National Hockey League draft, said with a smile.
Knies, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound winger, continued to turn heads when the organization's top prospects convened for a practice on Wednesday afternoon.
"Came in really good shape and looked sharp out there," said Toronto Marlies coach John Gruden, who will be behind the bench when the Leafs’ young guns face top prospects from the Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings this week at an exhibition tournament in in Traverse City, Mich. "His execution and his pace was good."
"Get my feet under me and get buzzing for training camp," Knies said of his mindset. "And try to learn some leadership qualities."
The leadership comment caught Gruden's attention.
"That he brought that point up, I respect that," the coach said. "He wants that, but he was also first in line and did every drill at top speed and he didn't cheat anything so I really admired that part of it."
Knies made an impressive NHL debut after signing his entry-level deal with the Leafs in April. The University of Minnesota product rode a wave of adrenaline from the NCAA Frozen Four to the Stanley Cup playoffs. What did he learn?
"How demanding the NHL is," the 20-year-old from Phoenix said. "We play every other day. It's physical. It's hard out there. It's fast. I just learned you have to step your game up to the next level so in my training in the summer I've kind of stepped it up and tried to train my body to withstand a long season."
Knies produced 21 goals and 21 assists in 40 NCAA games last season en route to being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He then picked up one goal and four assists in 10 games with the Leafs, including seven in the playoffs. Along the way Knies logged shifts beside Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Ryan O'Reilly and was on the ice for all three overtime winners during the series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It gives me a little boost of confidence getting that experience," he said. "That was a tremendous experience and getting to play with some of the best players here, it's something I didn't take for granted."
He's determined to earn his way back to that spot.
"I want to play with the big players," Knies said. "I want to play with the big club and I'm just going to work my best to play there."
Knies is being mentored by two of Toronto's most important players. He skated with fellow Arizonan Matthews, who assisted on his first NHL goal, throughout the summer.
"We tried to hop on the ice as much as we could together," said Knies. "He had some individual training and so did I but, yeah, there's a good amount of times when we were on the ice together and competing against each other."
Knies has long admired Matthews, who is a trailblazer for Arizona's hockey community, and believes the chemistry developed in the summer will help a lot.
"Having someone that is a huge role model to me there with me on a daily basis was huge," he said. "Someone to pick their brain about [stuff] and someone to watch in practice and watch how he takes his reps, it's a really big thing for me."
Knies has also benefited from being around Tavares, who invited the rookie to live with him last season. In particular, Knies has paid attention to what the soon-to-be-33-year-old captain eats.
"He's pretty strict," Knies noted. "I don't think he lets loose at all ... He opened my eyes to some things so it was good to take that in and I'm still learning, still taking more notes."
Knies' summer training wasn't impacted by the concussion he sustained in Game 2 of the series against the Florida Panthers.
"I was actually cleared the day we lost so I was eligible to play the following game," Knies revealed. "But after the season ended I took a few weeks off of the ice and training just to make sure I'm 100 per cent back. I took two or three weeks off to clear my head."
It was hard to watch the end of the season from the sidelines.
"I mean, it happens," he said. "It's out of my control but, yeah, I was super frustrated. It was such fun games to be a part of ... It sucked that I couldn't be a part of it, but I'm hoping to get a crack at it this year and get another chance to play with them and hopefully make it far."
What did Cowan focus on this summer?
"I wanted to get bigger and stronger and work on my first three strides," he said. "You know, be more explosive. I felt like I did good job of that. I put on some weight and grew a bit (smile) so got lucky there."
Cowan, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, got an assist from his mom.
"My mom made me a lot of meals," the Strathroy, Ont., native said.
The pasta with chocolate milk is great," he said with a grin. "Big chocolate milk guy."
Topi Niemela, Toronto's top prospect on defence, focused on improving his shot, both in terms of accuracy and power, during the summer. Did he succeed?
"Yeah, kind of," the 21-year-old said. "Ah, we'll see."
What did the Finn do to work on it?
"A lot of shooting practice on the ice, off the ice and then getting my hands stronger."
There were also some video sessions. Who did he study?
"There's a lot of players who are shooting great," he said. "There's Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews. Erik Karlsson, how he shoots at blue line, I like watching. He's my favourite player so I like to watch him."
What does Niemela, who debuted with the Marlies at the end of last season, see when he watches the reigning Norris Trophy winner?
"He's a great skater," Niemela observed. "He opens the game so beautiful and how he is moving on the blue line, I try to copy what he does."
Easier said than done.
"Of course it's hard because he's maybe the best defenceman in the world, but I try to learn how he's doing his things."
Due to a series of injuries, diminutive winger Nick Robertson has only played 82 games (AHL and NHL) over the last three seasons.
"The secret to success for me is just being healthy," Robertson told TSN in an August interview. "The last season I really felt healthy was my third year of junior."
Robertson scored 55 goals in 46 games during his third and final Ontario Hockey League season with the Peterborough Petes. After the pandemic pause, he made his Leafs debut during the bubble playoffs in 2020 when he suited up in four games against the Blue Jackets.
Robertson performed well in training camp last season and played 15 games with the Leafs before sustaining a shoulder injury in December, which eventually required surgery.
"This has been the longest duration of an injury for me," he said. "Obviously, it's not the start I wanted to my career."
Robertson, who celebrated his 22nd birthday this week, has tried to maintain a positive mindset.
"The show goes on," he said. "I have to do my part in getting ready for the season and getting ready to make the Leafs and to be a contributing player so that's been my main focus since the injury. When I got the surgery in January I knew from that point on it's time to prepare myself for the next season and look over film and look over areas I can improve on, areas that I may have not known to improve, and to hammer that this summer. I have and I'm ready to go."
What has he worked on?
"I'm very fast-paced so just picking and choosing little scenarios to maybe to slow it down or to speed up," he said. "Also, getting off the wall and using my skating ability to use my shot, which is what I really want to do ... I can't say everything I wanted to work on, but it's quite a bit and I'm happy where it's at."
Robertson, who is entering the final year of his entry-level deal, calls the upcoming season "very important" and he's ready to turn the page on an injury-ravaged stretch.
"Since the season's been done I was like, 'Ok, it's a fresh start,' and I'm just excited and ready to go."
The Leafs open training camp on Wednesday, Sept. 20, with medicals.
Leafs roster for the 2023 Traverse City Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich.:
40 Luke Cavallin
41 Dennis Hildeby
50 Vyacheslav Peksa
56 Noah Chadwick
62 Nolan Dillingham
84 Mikko Kokkonen
51 Mazden Leslie
73 Tommy Miller
47 Topi Niemela
61 Spencer Sova
81 Jonny Tychonick
76 William Villeneuve
53 Easton Cowan
90 Max Ellis
95 Jacob Frasca
98 Tyson Greenway
33 Roni Hirvonen
23 Matthew Knies
63 Braeden Kressler
96 Brandon Lisowsky
58 Robert Mastrosimone
39 Fraser Minten
97 Dmitry Ovchinnikov
77 Ryan Tverberg
49 Ty Voit
54 Tyler Weiss