Knies determined to make the most of chance beside Tavares
The Maple Leafs practised in two groups on Friday at the Ford Performance Centre. The groups also played a 25-minute scrimmage against each other.
After taking part in a scrimmage, Matthew Knies shed his sweater in the dressing room even though there was a practice still to come.
"I accidentally put mine in the laundry," he said sheepishly. "I didn't notice that I was going back with the same jersey."
The 20-year-old winger needed to retrieve a blank sweater with no name or number and only made it back to the ice just as practice was starting.
"I thought there was another one so that was on me," Knies said. "Live and learn."
The sweater switch is really the only time Knies has looked like a rookie at his first Leafs training camp. He's been skating on a line with captain John Tavares and Sam Lafferty. Knies describes it as "an honour" to start beside Tavares.
"It's a big opportunity for me," he added. "I just got to take advantage of it."
So far, so good.
"Matty's looked great," said Tavares. "He's physically so mature. I think you see the tenacity to his game and the power and also the poise and the puck-handling ability and things like that. I thought he was really impressive in the conditioning skate yesterday ... He's come in really ready and had a good summer. He's worked really hard and wants to build on how he finished the year with us."
Auston Matthews skated with Knies, a fellow Arizona native, in the summer and has no doubt that the University of Minnesota product, who played 10 games with the Leafs last season, is ready for the grind of a full professional year.
"He's very driven," Matthews noted. "Physically, he's more than capable of playing all 82 games and being a really good player for us."
Knies definitely looks the part. At 6-foot-3, 217 pounds he's an inch taller and seven pounds heavier than how he finished last season. And head coach Sheldon Keefe has offered a positive review of him after both practices so far.
"I'm confident in myself," Knies said. "I've always been. I have a strong game and I just try to play to my strengths and use my skating and my size and I think that's where I get my confidence."
But Knies is not overconfident. Despite earning top-nine time in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, he's not taking anything for granted. In fact, he still doesn't have a home in Toronto.
"Just for training camp I'm going to be in the hotel and just staying there and focusing on hockey and focusing on making the team," he said.
Knies lived with Tavares after joining the Leafs in April.
"If all goes well and I earn my opportunities to be with the big guys then I think I might stay with John for a bit until I figure out where it is best to live in Toronto," he said. "I'm still getting used to the city so I'm not sure where to go yet. So, just got to take it day by day and I think I'll find a spot."
He's well on his way.
Tavares weighed in at 211 pounds at training camp, which is five pounds lighter than what he was listed at last season.
"It was not intentional," the 33-year-old said. "I don't weigh myself. I usually go by how I feel."
Tavares has a strict routine and diet that he follows, which ensures he stays in shape.
"I've just continued to follow certain details and things I want to work on to be a little lighter, a little quicker, but still want the power and strength to my game that I think is foundational," he said. "So, it was nothing super intentional."
Last season, Tavares credited new skating coach Paul Matheson, also a consultant with the Leafs, for helping him feel lighter on his feet. They continued to work together in the summer.
"A big part of it was continuing to work on posture," Tavares said. "And then, also, when you start to fatigue and things break down, really trying to trust those habits and some of those technical aspects that you want to stick and become instinctive and to be really strong."
After Timothy Liljegren led the defence with six goals last season, the Leafs are looking to get more offence from their blue line this season. Enter right-shot defenceman John Klingberg, who signed a one-year deal on July 1.
"He is an excellent puck mover," said Keefe. "He can get the puck in the hands of our forwards. He can also be a guy who can join the rush and be involved that way. He is a guy who can finish a chance and create chances for others. It is a different element than we have had on the back end."
Klingberg scored 10 goals last season while playing for the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild.
Morgan Rielly, a lefty, is Toronto's top play-driving defenceman. He is eager to see how the 31-year-old Swede can change the dynamic for the group.
"He's a huge addition," Rielly said. "We want to do whatever we can to help him in his transition because what he brings on the ice is almost unmatched ... Great skater. Great patience. Great puck mover. Offensive D that can really contribute in any way. Incredible on the power play. So, I mean, there's tons there for us."
As good as he is offensively, Klingberg has struggled in his own end going a combined minus-78 over the last four seasons.
"He has some work to do in his game," Keefe acknowledged. "We have talked about that. We are going to be working with him. It is going to take some time, but his attitude has been great. He knows where he is at and where we want him to improve. We also want him to use what he has. He has some great gifts offensively. He has the ability to transport the puck, distribute the puck, walk the blue line, and get the puck to the net. You want to see him thriving offensively. Over time, we will clean up some of the things defensively."
Klingberg has started camp on the second pair alongside Jake McCabe.
"McCabe is a veteran player that played well for us last year in the regular season especially," said Keefe. "We expect him to get off to a good start and be a bit of a stabilizer for Klingberg at the same time."
Since Keefe took over behind the bench, the Leafs have played music during certain drills at practice.
"It's my favourite thing I've probably seen since I've been here," said new forward Ryan Reaves. "It's unbelievable. Although today the early music was kind of trash. We got to work on that. The EDM [electronic dance music] during practice isn't it."
What would the 36-year-old prefer?
"A little hip hop. If you're going to put on EDM you need a light show going or something, a couple smoke machines."
Left winger Noah Gregor, who is at camp on a pro tryout, has been skating on a line with Reaves and David Kampf.
"He is not a player I was overly familiar with being out west in San Jose there," Keefe said. "The more I watched him on video, he has lots of speed. He is on the puck. He has tenacity."
Gregor scored a career-high 10 goals in 57 games with the Sharks last season.
"He has the ability to score and finish," Keefe said. "I think he may have some more offensive ability than what he has been able to show in the NHL thus far. He also has a good foundation to his game."
Defenceman Simon Benoit (back spasms) skated on his own.
"It didn't make sense to push through at this stage, but the hope was that he would have a good day today and start to work towards joining the group," said Keefe.
Lines in Friday's practices and scrimmage:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Knies - Tavares - Lafferty
Hirvonen - Gambrell - Steeves
Cliffford - Minten - Ellis / Blandisi
McCabe - Klingberg
Giordano - Liljegren
Lajoie - Villeneuve
Rifai - Miller
Domi - Nylander - Jarnkrok
Robertson - Holmberg - Abruzzese
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Slavin / Shaw - Cowan - Tverberg
Rielly - Brodie
Kokkonen - Niemela
Lagesson - Timmins
Chadwick - Dillingham