Leafs rookies look to find their footing after nervy start
The Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild held optional skates at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
"It was a rough start for us in the beginning," Knies acknowledged. "We were a little bit nervous and didn't have too much poise with the puck. As the game went on we did much better and started skating a lot harder and got to play with the puck a lot more. It's just building."
Knies, Toronto's second-round pick in 2021, was playing his 11th NHL game and first season opener. Minten, the team's second-round pick in 2022, was making his NHL debut. The pair played on the third line alongside Calle Jarnkrok.
"It was a step up," Minten said of the pace. "I noticed that. Everyone out there thinks the game so well, you have to know exactly where you're going and what you're going to do before you touch that puck otherwise your space is going to get closed off so quick and you're going to be forced into a bad play. The game moves so fast so you got to know where you're going before you get the puck."
Both Knies and Minten had one shot on net and one giveaway during the wild 6-5 shootout win. Toronto's third line was outshot 5-2 and outscored 1-0 against the Montreal Canadiens, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"I think they're just going to keep getting better and better every game," said Jarnkrok, 32, who is the elder statesman on the line. "They got pretty much everything figured out. They don't need me to teach that many things out there. They got it all by themselves."
The line will remain intact for Saturday's showdown with the Minnesota Wild. Sheldon Keefe is preaching patience when it comes to Minten, who played 11 minutes and 32 seconds on Wednesday, and Knies, who logged 12 minutes and 57 seconds.
"Just continue to progress," the coach instructed. "Through preseason, both of those guys looked very comfortable and confident. You can understand as things build and the more you guys [media] talk to them, you can understand that more gets into their head aside from just playing. That is natural. With more time, that stuff should settle. We had another practice day yesterday with a chance to clear their head and just get back to it."
Minten, who spent the previous three seasons with the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers, is a quick study.
"He's so smart out there," said Jarnkrok. "It feels like he's been in the league for a long time already. Mints is going to be a great player."
Minten's high hockey IQ is a big reason why he was able to become the first teenager not drafted in the first round to play on opening night for the Leafs since Matt Stajan in 2003.
Blazers coach and general manager Shaun Clouston recalls how Minten, during his 16-year-old season in the Western Hockey League hub, embraced being a penalty killer during practice. He did every rep until the coaches told him to let another player have a turn.
"He volunteered and jumped out every time," Clouston told TSN. "Then at 17, when it's time for people to kill, he's ready to go and there's other guys that really struggled. He was able to look ahead. He was able to say, 'This could be really important. I'm going to figure out the penalty kill. I'm going to understand exactly where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to do so I'm ready to go.' There's not a lot of young players who could look at the situation like that or look that far ahead and realize how important it is."
Minten is already getting a look with the Leafs penalty kill. He played more than a minute shorthanded on Wednesday.
Clouston noticed Minten was locked in when he arrived for training camp with the Blazers in early September before heading to Toronto.
"The thing that stands out with Fraser is that he's always focused," Clouston observed. "Some guys show up at that time and kind of use camp just to get loosened up and they kind of go through the motions a little bit and Fraser, he was not like that at all. His mindset was, 'I'm going to go hard here for the first few days of camp and use it to really push myself and try to pick up my pace.' He knew it would be a different pace so he really tried to push himself. He appeared stronger. He appeared a little more confident so those were all signs that he was ready to have a real good camp."
Minten wore the 'C' during an exhibition game with Kamloops before heading to Toronto's camp.
"One of the things we do is we ask all our players in exit meetings, who's our leader next year? We're graduating a lot of players, who's going to be the guy? And it was unanimous that Fraser Minten was going to be the No. 1 guy here," Clouston revealed. "He's not overly emotional. He's passionate, but he doesn't let his emotions get the best of him."
That emotional intelligence and maturity helps explain why he's ready to make such a big jump at such a young age.
"He's just engaged in the moment," Clouston noted. "I think he tries to answer the question, 'What does this moment need from me right now as a person?'...We're all a little bit surprised, for sure, but we all believed he was ready to go. He was ready to have a great camp. He's the type of person who really embraces the challenge and goes after it."
After skating a couple solo laps alone, per rookie tradition, Minten was joined by Knies for a couple more on Wednesday night.
"It wasn't really choreographed on my end," said a smiling Knies, who did his first rookie lap in Florida in April. "I was just standing there and they were pushing me out there. I didn't really expect it."
It was Ryan Reaves, who sits beside Knies in the Scotiabank Arena dressing room, who led the charge.
"All the boys were kind of yelling at me, especially Reavo who was giving it to me to go out there," Knies said. "I didn't really want say, 'No' so I just hopped out there with him."
Reaves is quickly making his presence felt around the Leafs and Saturday could be another big night for the big winger as he faces his old team.
"Sometimes when you're better friends with them, you want to lay them out a little more," Reaves told The Athletic's Michael Russo. "Unfortunately for them, I became pretty good friends with all of them."
Reaves played 61 games for the Wild last season.
Knies and Wild defenceman Brock Faber helped the University of Minnesota reach the Frozen Four last season. On Saturday, the pair of Golden Gophers will go at it in the NHL for the first time.
"He was one of my best friends when I was back at school," Knies said. "He was our captain there so looked up to him a lot. A great role model and loved to learn from that guy so it's pretty cool I get to play against him now on such a stage."
"It's fun we get to face off this early," Faber, 21, agreed. "That's a brotherhood that will last forever."
Who will have the edge when they share the ice?
"Ah, I mean, hopefully it's me, right," Knies said with a grin. "I'm going to work harder for it to be me."
"I'm going to say myself, confidently, but he's a tremendous hockey player," said Faber, who scored his first NHL goal in Minnesota's win on Thursday. "He's big. He's strong. He can move. His hands are so good."
Despite their close bond, Knies and Faber didn't meet up on Friday night.
"We're both giving each other a little bit of space because it's going to be toe to toe out there tonight," Knies said.
"Hopefully we get a battle or two in the corner," Faber added. "That would be fun."
After skipping Wednesday's optional pre-game skate, left winger Max Domi decided to take the ice on Saturday morning.
"Don't read too much into that stuff," Domi said. "Sometimes you're feeling it, other times you're not. So, just to feel the puck a little bit in the morning makes you feel a little better at night."
"There was a lot of special teams," Domi pointed out. "Overall, we had some looks for sure and there's some stuff we can clean up as well, but that's game one of 82 so that's to be expected and looking forward to getting a little bit better tonight."
Domi played just 11 minutes and 39 seconds. He didn't have a game last season where he played that little.
Nylander and Tavares have played together for years and have a pre-existing chemistry, which Domi is still adjusting to.
"It is just learning more about them," Keefe said. "I have talked to Max a little bit about that. Max, a lot of times, can be a puck-dominant guy. He has the puck, he is a playmaking guy. When you play with Willy, in particular, he is a puck-dominant guy. He is going to have it a lot. Now, you have to find your space on the ice and find your role on the ice off the puck in the offensive zone."
The chemistry on the rush looks to be there, but that may not mean much against the Wild.
"I don't expect there is going to be a whole lot available on the rush against this team we are playing tonight, but I expect that is where we will see those guys really connect," Keefe said. "The offensive-zone stuff is going to continue to take time."
"We were able to create some chances," said Nylander, who scored on the power play. "Didn't capitalize on all of them but that's a good start for us for this season."
After stopping all 41 shots faced in Thursday's opener against Florida, Filip Gustavsson will be back in net for the Wild.
"It could've been different too if we didn't have a shutout and he played extremely well," said coach Dean Evason. "We want to get Flower [Marc-Andre Fleury] going as well, but we talked to both goaltenders, it's [based] on their play. Gus played really well so he goes again."
Since Nov. 19, 2022, Gustavsson leads all NHL goalies (min. 12 games played) with a 1.86 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. He is 22-5-6 with four shutouts in that span.
The Leafs did beat Gustavsson 2-1 in overtime when the Wild visited Toronto in February last season. Nylander scored the winner that night.
"I don't really know too much about him," Nylander said on Saturday. "Did he have a shutout in [the] first game? So, probably a pretty good Swedish goalie."
After scoring a power-play goal on Wednesday, Nylander winked at countryman John Klingberg, who set him up.
"I have no clue where that came from, to be honest," Nylander said with a smile. "Actually, somebody showed me after the game and I was like, 'I don't know what that was.'"
We may not see more winks, but Klingberg's right shot may open up more Nylander one-timer goals on the power play this season.
"Maybe just gives us a little more different of a look for one-Ts from my side and Mitchy's side versus Auston and John's side," Nylander said.
Tavares led the Leafs in power-play goals last season with 18 while Auston Matthews was second with 13. Nylander and Mitch Marner both had nine man-advantage markers.
Lefty Morgan Rielly was the power-play quarterback most of last season.
*wink* pic.twitter.com/ZZxlX6N6NT— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 12, 2023
New general manager Brad Treliving sought to add some "snot" to his lineup in the summer and some of the new recruits certainly look the part. Domi, Klingberg and Tyler Bertuzzi are all missing some of their incisors.
Klingberg lost some front teeth when he was playing with the Swedish national team six or seven years ago.
"Obviously, I've had a bridge or a flipper that I've been using," the 31-year-old said. "I was going to fly over to Toronto it just came out like a week before. I've just been too lazy to put them back in but I'm going to do it here within the next month. My wife isn't very happy about it, but it's hockey so it looks pretty good too."
Domi's buddy, Scott Harrington, accidentally knocked some of his teeth out with his stick during a game in San Jose last March.
"Just kind of swooped his stick and didn't even know I was there," Domi said. "It caught me right in the mouth and knocked out a bunch of them and these two were just too far gone and I couldn't save them. Just haven't gotten around to fixing them yet. I kind of like it."
With one exception.
"Eating an apple or something like that is a little tricky," Domi said. "But you figure it out."
Bertuzzi has been missing his teeth the longest.
"Since my first year in Grand Rapids," the former Detroit Red Wing said.
That would be the 2014-15 season.
"I got high sticked," said Bertuzzi, who doesn't recall the culprit.
The look fits Bertuzzi's greasy game.
"My first couple years in Guelph established that," Bertuzzi said of his Ontario Hockey League career. "My game got better as I moved up and up, but that's always kind of stuck with me. "
Projected Leafs lineup for Saturday's game:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Domi - Tavares - Nylander
Knies - Minten - Jarnkrok
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Klingberg
Giordano - Liljegren
With thousands in Toronto preparing to run @TOwaterfront42k, inspiration can be drawn from #leafs David Kämpf.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) October 14, 2023
Kämpf recently ran his first half in 1:37:48.
"I was thinking about going 1:50. ... The last 5 KM it really hit me and it was brutal. It was tough. But it was fun." pic.twitter.com/1SY5DNhqS9