TORONTO – When Matthew Knies weighed the pros and cons of signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs and jumping to the NHL in the nick of playoff time, everyone had an opinion on what the 19-year-old should do.
The organization’s top-rated prospect picked the brain of fellow U.S. Olympian Nick Abruzzese, 23, another NCAA star. Abruzzese did put pen to paper and opted to turn pro; he could tell his friend what life inside the Maple Leafs dressing room was really like.
Naturally, Knies consulted his parents, Miroslav and Michaela, and his hockey-playing older brother, Phil. He polled friends and coaches.
And as Knies was going through his difficult decision-making process, he also got a call from fellow Arizonan Auston Matthews.
“He was someone I really like to listen to and take advice from, so he's definitely a big character and has been really helpful as well,” Knies says Sunday at Ford Performance Centre, following his first day on-ice at a Leafs development camp.
“When he made it here, I kept watching him. He was a big influence on my game.”
The Hart Trophy champ’s advice to his fellow blue-chip, left-shot centreman?
“Just be patient with it. Make sure you're ready for the jump. I know he made it quick, but there's not many guys like Auston that could make that jump so early,” Knies recalls.
“So, be patient. Work on your skills. Develop yourself. And make sure you're ready to make the next step — because it's definitely a big one.”
Wowed by Knies’ point-per-game freshman season for an excellent University of Minnesota squad, and in need of a cap-friendly, left-side scoring boost, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas made overtures last spring for Knies to sign as a 19-year-old.
Yes, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward was tempted to cap of a whirlwind season — an Olympic experience, an appearance at the false-start world juniors, and stellar Frozen Four showing — with his NHL debut.
But Dubas was also respectful that Knies needed to feel comfortable making the leap.
“I felt that they really needed me. They really wanted me. I felt that they wanted my best interest (taken) into it. They wanted me to become the best player I can, so they left the decision up to me, but obviously they were really professional about it,” Knies explains.
“I had a lot of people in my ear telling me what to do, and I listened to them. I took everyone's advice. But it came down to my decision. And I thought I just needed one more year to become a better player, because I know it's a big step to make the NHL. So, I'm trying to make it a much smoother transition.”
Ironically, it takes a mature person to recognize they need more maturing.
Knies has been groomed for what’s to come since youth, having sought the coaching guidance of Arizona’s finest, Shane Doan, since he was five or six years old.
He feels comfortable trying to take another stab at a national championship with the Gophers, and he plans to use the 2022-23 season to refine his two-way game and turn himself into a more complete threat.
Knies is also jacked up for August, when he’ll continue his “dream come true” of representing Team USA at the world juniors in Edmonton — this time with fans buzzing in the barn.
Toronto’s second-round pick in 2021, a pandemic draft, Knies is visiting Toronto for the first time in ages. (He came here once as a young boy, stayed at a team hotel, played a tournament, and popped back across the border.)
The prospects were granted a Q&A session with fresh front-office assistant Jason Spezza Saturday at the welcome dinner, and Knies smiles wide when meeting president Brendan Shanahan at the rink.
He’s also keen to glean whatever knowledge he can from player development guru Hayley Wickenheiser.
“She's really smart. I mean, she knows what she's talking about,” Knies says. “She gives it to me a little bit too much — obviously in good fun — and I’ve learned a lot from her. I'm excited to pick her brain for the rest of the week.”
Striking an imposing figure for a teen, Knies stands out, literally and figuratively, among Leafs campers. His game blends raw muscle with silky hands and swift feet.
The eye test matches the assessment given by multiple pro scouts: Were NHL GMs given a mulligan on the 2021 draft, Knies would get scooped up in Round 1.
“He's really strong and powerful out there,” beams Fraser Minten, Toronto’s first pick in the 2022 draft. “He looks like one of the biggest guys out there — really strong and definitely noticeable.”
“I have a big size, and I'm a strong player. So, I like to use that to my advantage,” Knies says, matter-of-factly. “I think that's what's gonna help me make that next step.”
Toronto’s development staff is stressing a simple message to the Blue-and-White hopefuls:
Be a thief.
“When you see someone doing something good, you take it and that try to apply it to your game. So that's what I'm trying to do here — try to take in all that information to make sure I'm a better player,” Knies says.
If Knies is a thief, he’s an honest one.
“I don't think I was ready to make the step yet. Off the ice, on the ice, I don't think I was mature enough as a player, as a person. I think there was more to go into that. I'm excited. I'm fortunate enough to be here. And just really, really happy.”
The next Maple Leaf projected to stick in the top six is heeding advice from the desert.
Be patient and good things will follow.
“Hopefully I can join them at the end of the season,” Knies says.
“Once I’ve matured myself as a player, I think that's when I can make the step and kind of give the Leafs a boost and try to make them a better team.”