Leafs prospect Knies feels the NHL itch as he matures in Minnesota
The Toronto Maple Leafs could get a boost down the stretch this season if top prospect Matthew Knies signs following his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota.
"I don't really have a decision at this time," the 20-year-old left winger said when asked if he's planning to jump to the National Hockey League this year. "Taking it the same [way] as last year. When the season ends, I'm going to sit down and talk with everyone and go over it. I'm confident in my ability and I think I could be ready to make that step."
It sure looks that way. Knies is tied with Michigan’s Adam Fantilli for the Big Ten Conference goal-scoring lead with 17 tallies in 28 games. Knies, who leads the conference with five game-winning goals, is a big reason why the Golden Gophers are the top-ranked team in the country.
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Knies already seems to have the strength and size needed to crack the NHL and another year at school has allowed him round out his game.
"It's tremendous what one year can do for you," the Phoenix native said. "On and off the ice, I've matured as a person and gained that confidence to be that player that I want to be ... It's definitely helped me a lot to take this year and work on those little things that I need to take care of before making that big jump. I know how big of a step it could be. I need to be as prepared as possible and I think that this one year has helped me a lot so far."
The work isn't done. After coming up a couple wins short at the Frozen Four last year, Knies is looking to help Minnesota capture a national title. Toronto's top pick in the 2021 draft (57th overall) spoke to TSN about where his game has improved the most and how he's handling hearing his name in trade speculation ahead of the NHL deadline. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TSN: Is it hard to not think about being part of a playoff push in Toronto this spring?
Knies: "Yeah. I mean, that's the dream for every kid is to play in the NHL and play in the playoffs ... I'm itching to kind of be with that group and be that impact player I want to be, but my focus is here. My focus is on this team and then once that time comes, I can make that decision and put all my focus on one place."
TSN: You are a top prospect for a team that's looking to buy at the deadline, so your name comes up in trade speculation. How do you deal with that?
Knies: "I just stay my course. It's out of my hands. It’s out of my control. I just try to be the best player I can be wherever that is ... Obviously, I stay in contact with them [Leafs] and work on things I need to do. But all that is out of my control and not really in my hands. That's all up to them. I'm just going to focus on myself."
TSN: What's your approach to social media?
Knies: "I go on it occasionally. Honestly, it's just to catch up with friends, catch up with recent news. I have a time limit on my phone for almost every social media app now. It started with TikTok because that was getting kind of excessive, and it led into the other ones. I don't try and be on it too much or dig into any details when it comes to that kind of [trade] stuff or those kind of rumours."
TSN: You've had a great season and are heating up lately with five goals on 26 shots in the last five games. What's working well?
Knies: "Just ripping the puck. Just firing. Just getting it off my stick. The more I get it off my stick the better the chances to create that chaos in front of the net and get chances for other guys as well. I have that shot-first mentality and it's been working for me, so I'll try to keep that in my mind."
TSN: Where has your game grown the most this season?
Knies: "I've worked a lot on my skating and my shooting. I want to get it off my stick quicker and in tight areas and I've done really well with that. With my skating, it's getting out of corners and being a little bit more deceptive with my feet. I think that's definitely been a huge improvement with my game and allows me to get a step ahead on defenders."
TSN: How did you work on your shooting?
Knies: "Just before practice and after practice. You're collecting the puck in different situations, off my skate and in tight, and kind of getting it off and making sure it's a good, quality shot. Also, changing the angle. Using my top hand a little more – kind of pulling back a little more with my top hand to increase the speed of the shot. And just being deceptive and shooting in different areas like shooting five-hole and those low-blocker plays. It's very valuable to be a deceptive shooter."
TSN: Do you study anyone in the NHL?
Knies: "The best players like Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos, you know, the guys who can shoot the puck. A guy on our team like that is Jimmy Snuggerud who can wire the puck. So, I kind of take little things out of their game like where they place the puck on their blade, the angle on their shots and little things like that."
TSN: Has Matthews given you any advice on shooting?
Knies: "No (smile). No, he hasn't. I'm sure for him it's a secret. I try and take as much as I can from watching him. He's an exciting shooter and can always beat the goalie. Watching film on him has definitely helped my game."
TSN: What changed with your skating?
Knies: "I wanted to get a quicker first step around defenders. Also, I'm using my knees to angle off opponent sticks as well when I'm driving it to the net. That's something I tried to work on a lot this year along with being deceptive with my feet. You know, kind of leading an opponent one way and then changing direction on him quicker and getting a step on him quicker. It's really helped me in getting closer to the net, being around the net and keeping the puck on my stick a little longer."
TSN: What's it like playing on a line with Coyotes prospect Logan Cooley?
Knies: "He’s an incredible player. So dynamic. Such a fluent skater. He kind of does it all. He's someone that you kind of stand in awe [of]. He makes plays that you just don't see other players make and it's been tremendous. He’s been a huge help in my career and someone I get along with on and off the ice. He’s been a huge influence and a big reason why I'm having success."
TSN: Who does he remind you of in the NHL?
Knies: "Clayton Keller. He just has that shiftiness and finesse with the puck where every sauce is perfectly landed and just that little, like, effectiveness to beat the goalie when it's in tight. Just with those little things, I see a lot of Keller. When I went to visit back home, I went to a Coyotes game and he looked a lot like him, so that's a good comparison."
TSN: What about Blues first rounder Snuggerud? What stands out about your other linemate?
Knies: "His shot. He puts every ounce of his weight into every shot and it's pretty hard for a goalie to stop that when it's wired like that. He's also a very smart hockey player. He knows where to put the puck. But his shot is definitely the thing teams have to look out for. He can beat a goalie at any angle. When it's on his stick, it's off and that's also something, like I said, I want to work on. I want to have that in my game. A good comparison is Stamkos. That shot, no matter what you do, you can’t stop."
TSN: What's it mean to be getting time on the penalty kill this season?
Knies: "I want to play in all situations. Being a part of that group, it's [significant] to the outcome of the game. I want to be in every situation. I want to be the player they choose to help them win games whether that's on the penalty kill, last minute of the game up or down, you know, I want to be out there and make a difference."
TSN: You recently scored a nice shorthanded goal against Notre Dame. What did you see on the play?
Knies: "It went so fast and kind of just everyone bit at the same time, and it worked for me. Yeah, I mean, it was pretty unreal. I think I celly'd a little bit too hard because I was a little astonished by myself. That was a remarkable goal in my career."
TSN: What's your favourite goal this season?
Knies: "The overtime one against North Dakota was probably No. 1. That's such a big rivalry with them and getting to do that in our home barn with a sellout crowd was pretty, pretty memorable for me. That's the one where everyone was a bit more juiced up. That's the one I wanted the most."
TSN: You aren't in Toronto yet, but Leafs fans are tracking you closely. Every nice play seems to go viral among Leafs Nation. Do you feel that love despite not being in Toronto yet?
Knies: "It's hard not to see when it kind of pops up on my phone, but I don't really look into it too much. I don't want to be influenced by it in any way or in any direction. So, I just focus on my game, work hard. It's obviously good to see that support. It's a tremendous fan base with some die hard hockey fans so I love to get that support."
TSN: What feedback have you received from the Leafs this season?
Knies: "Just to keep working. They've been sending me clips on the shooting and the skating and working on it with me. But I think they trust me in my game and don't want to be too much of a distraction. They've had a good balance with that."
TSN: Who do you talk to the most?
Knies: "I've talked to [assistant general manager, player development] Hayley Wickenheiser a little bit here. We had Joe Underwood [from player development] here for a visit, [performance dietician] Landon Hong was here. We've had a few come down and check out what we have here and kind of chat and see what they can help me with. Just Little things like that that go a long way."
TSN: You faced Michigan this season. What stands out about Fantilli?
Knies: "He has a motor. He works hard. Big player. Strong. Tough. He’s got that NHL frame that you want and that motor. He reminds me a bit of Matty Beniers in that aspect where he kind of non-stop moves and he's hard to stop on the ice. He's a dynamic player for them and someone you have to look out for each game."
TSN: What would a national championship mean to you?
Knies: "Everything. This is the reason the core group of guys are here now. That’s why we’re here and that's why we work hard in practice every day and show up in the weight room. That's the end result everyone wants. I don't think anyone is satisfied with anything less."
TSN: How confident are you in this group?
Knies: "Extremely. Our D core has been outstanding for us. Such a veteran D core that we have. Same with our goaltending, we’ve been really strong. It's up to us up front to produce the scoring and be sound in the defensive zone. We have such a good group here and such a tight group as well off the ice. I have a lot of confidence in us going into playoffs and towards the end of the season."
TSN: What have you liked the most about the university experience?
Knies: "Just getting to meet other athletes around campus. The baseball players, gymnasts, women’s hockey team, you know, all those athletes you get to see around the dorm halls or in the dining halls, it's a cool atmosphere to be a part of. And same with having crowds with a student section and a band at your game, it's pretty outstanding. This whole atmosphere at campus, going to campus and meeting different people, it's pretty cool and it’s something I’m happy I got to experience."