Quick Shifts: Why the Maple Leafs should bring in Matthew Knies soon

United States' Matt Knies celebrates a goal during a preliminary round men's hockey game against Germany at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Beijing. (Petr David Josek/AP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. It’s been awkward writing for Sportsnet ever since my salary-dump trade to IrishDangles.com was reversed on a technicality.

1. Matthew Knies is the reason Josh Ho-Sang is not an NHLer.

Kyle Dubas thinks so highly of his two prized college prospects, Minnesota’s Knies and Harvard’s Nick Abruzzese (who signed his ELC Saturday), that he declined to promote any of his AHLers and save a couple roster slots for recent draft picks who have made noise south of the border.

With Dubas in the building, freshman Knies delivered a tour de force performance in the Gophers' 4-3 comeback overtime win over Massachusetts Friday. A big momentum-shifting hit. A game-tying goal. And Minnesota advanced to Sunday's Worcester Regional final in the NCAA tournament.

UMass coach Greg Carvel called Knies a "difference-maker" and compared his snipe to something from the Auston Matthews arsenal:

The word on Knies? He’s a can’t-miss prospect coming out of the USHL. 

On draft day, experts projected Knies to be a middle-six power forward. Soft hands. Protects the puck well. Drives to the slot. A knack for the finish.

“We wanted to make sure we have some potential space for them. We didn’t want to burn the slots on the AHL guys, unfortunately,” Dubas said Monday. “We just wanted to keep that option open. We don’t want to put pressure on either.”

Knies is only 19, however.

Despite the Phoenix native’s 29 points in 30 games for Minnesota this season, and despite his strong showing for Team USA at the false-start 2022 world juniors and Winter Olympic Games, the notion of Knies jumping from kids to a critical playoff battle is something.

That said, it’s almost a certainty that Dubas at least takes a peek at the future in the leadup to Game 1 and gauge if he’s an asset who could help in May or one that needs to simmer for the future.

Toronto’s second and fourth lines are far from perfect. A playoff spot is on lock. Why not see what you have in the system?

“No pressure from our end,” said Dubas, diplomatically.

Knies still needs an entry-level contract, however, and he could still play another year in college if he chooses.

The Leafs don’t want to put the screws to the player yet, knowing Knies could delay his signature and become a college free agent down the road.

But why on Earth would Knies not be interested in hitching on for one of the most compelling playoff rides?

2. Has so much excitement and intrigue and drama and turnover and controversy ever encircled one team through their first five years of existence as the Vegas Golden Knights?

Maybe the 2021-22 Knights are like the 2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning — too snakebit to succeed.

Amidst a nine-year run of playoff appearances (and at least three Cup final appearances), Tampa missed the dance entirely that season.

Vegas is far and away the franchise most impacted by man-games lost to injury this season. And with the Evgenii Dadonov trade blowing up, it can’t squeeze Alec Martinez or Mark Stone into these meaningful games.

If these Knights go the way of the ’17 Bolts, does impatient owner Bill Foley shrug and say, “Ah, well. Not our year”? Or does he take a machete to the men under his employ?

3. Inside Bridgestone Arena last weekend, a spontaneous and thunderous “RE! SIGN! FORS! BERG!” chant erupted from the Nashville faithful.

As much as the long-term implications of the Tomas Hertl extension concern us, at least the Sharks made a decision.

Considering the prices rental players went for this week and the power imbalance in the West, how badly will it reflect on David Poile if the Predators are easy playoff fodder and lose Forsberg for nothing?

Something to watch.

Forsberg rates sixth overall in the goal-scoring race (36), is top-15 leaguewide in points per game (1.23) and is a plus-10. I get why you wouldn’t want to part with a franchise talent.

But ask the New York Islanders how it feels to walk someone of that calibre out the door for free.

4. The Maple Leafs’ special teams have been nothing short of incredible.

With two short-handed goals Wednesday in their victory over the New Jersey Devils, the Leafs lead the league with 10 shorties and minus-18 goal differential at 4-on-5.

Add that to the NHL’s most effective power play, and you have a plus-26 goal differential in odd-man situations, tops in hockey. (Next best are the Hurricanes at plus-22. The Blues, Flames, Penguins, Rangers and Avalanche also fare favourably here.)

In other words, Toronto — which added two solid special team players in Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell — will just be hoping for whistles come playoff time.

5. Many fans questioned the waiver rule that permitted the Arizona Coyotes to scoop free-agent Harri Säteri from the Maple Leafs on deadline day.

Toronto had done the legwork of recruiting the goaltender and negotiating a contract. Säteri surely was intrigued by the opportunity of joining a contender and potentially playing his first NHL playoff game. Then along rolls Wild Bill Armstrong, who stashes him away to the regular-season desert.

Why NHL clubs must pass European free agent signings through the waiver system actually traces back to another Olympic medal–winning, frequent-flying Finn.

In 1986-87, offensive defenceman Reijo Ruotsalainen inked a deal SC Bern of the Swiss League, despite being so good he represented the New York Rangers at the ’86 all-star game.

Once Bern’s season had wrapped, Ruotsalainen (and his Paul Coffey–like stride) signed with the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers, put up eight points in 10 regular-season games down the stretch, then another 13 in Edmonton’s playoff run to the 1987 Stanley Cup.

Then bounced back to Europe to maintain his Olympic eligibility.

He earned the nickname “Rental Rexi.”

Ruotsalainen joined the Oilers again in late 1990, played meaningful minutes in the playoffs and won another ring. He then peaced out to Bern and never came back to North America.

Think of it: The rule-changing Ruotsalainen appeared in just 26 regular-season games for the Oilers but won two Cups with them.

The league believed a loophole had been exposed, and cinched that sucker shut — much to Dubas’s chagrin three decades later.

6. You must wonder what was running through Dubas’s mind watching brand-new Dallas Stars goalie Scott Wedgewood’s brilliant performance Thursday in Carolina.

One of the so-called lateral moves that could have altered the Maple Leafs crease, Wedgewood put on a show, recording a 44-save shootout victory for his new club despite getting outshot 47-15.

The 29-year-old Brampton, Ont., native turned away all three Canes shooters in the skills contest and finished with the most saves by any Stars goalie in a debut. Several were of the did-you-just-see-that? variety.

Wedgewood was a cheap rental. He went for a fourth-round pick in 2023. His cap hit is an manageable $825,000. (For those prone to snap reaction: Wedgewood could’ve been a Leaf.)

Won’t take many more wins like that for Jim Nill to feel like he got his money’s worth.

7. “They’re face-lickin’ good,” said March Munch Cinnamon Crunch spokesman Brad Marchand. “Can I say that?

“If I can’t, I’m sorry.”

Sorry not sorry.

Marchand inked a deal to promote his own breakfast cereal, a Cinnamon Toast Crunch knockoff that sells online at a price of $29.99 for two boxes.

Too steep? Well, the first batch of the sugary goods has already sold out, and the next round won’t be delivered for about a month.

A portion of the proceeds benefits Christopher’s Haven, which supports housing and recreation for families of children being treated for cancer in Boston hospitals.

Marchand’s partnership is with PLB Sports & Entertainment, the same engine behind Doug’s Flutie Flakes.

“Growing up, as a kid I would see different athletes with their own cereal,” Marchand said. “I just never thought it would be me one day. The fact that it is my favorite cereal makes this project event sweeter.”

8. Love that Darryl Sutter booted Calgary goalie coach Jason LaBarbera to deal with the post-game media after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to San Jose.

Beat reporters typically hear from the head coach — and head coach only — after every practice, every morning skate, and every game.

Teams want one voice representing the whole so us nitpickers don’t pry for incongruencies. But it’s refreshing to hear from an assistant, and I’d love to see it become normal practice.

Plus, it gives the bench boss a break from the routine queries.

We suspect Leafs goalie coach Steve Briere might have some insight into the goings-on of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek the last few months.

9. Curious about some of the clubs who remained quiet at the trade deadline.

The Islanders, Red Wings and Sabres aren’t a Hail Mary pass from the playoff picture, yet they stood still while rental players were selling for juicy prices.

To be fair, Steve Yzerman didn’t have much to sell (Marc Staal, Sam Gagner, Thomas Greiss and Danny DeKeyser).

Buffalo had more to offer, but there is a distinct sense – during the longest playoff drought in NHL history — that this stretch, while meaningless in the standings, does mean something toward carrying momentum into 2022-23.

"This is a place where I want to be. I don't want to keep moving around. I want to be somewhere that I love. And I love it here," Vinnie Hinostroza told reporters.

That’s something.

Not only did Lou Lamoriello’s Islanders not sell, they extended Zach Parise and Cal Clutterbuck Monday — a pair of transactions that should be as surprising as any.

Sounds like Lamoriello is treating this season as an aberration and believes his veteran group will be right back in the mix next season. I’m less convinced.

10. Justin Holl is the real-life Bubble Boy.

Pucks, sticks, the Maple Leafs defenceman has taken so many hits to the face, he started to consider if he was doing something wrong.

Was he throwing his mug into vulnerable positions? Was there a way to limit the damage? Or was it simply bad luck?

The tip of Holl’s nose got in the way of a shot follow-through during the Heritage Classic and his whole bridge swelled up. He needed to see a specialist to determine if his nose was broken. Either way, he’s been playing with a full face shield. Something he’s done numerous times.

So often, he’s used to the fishbowl look.

“I don't really notice it when I'm out there. I was telling the guys, the worst part is yelling and talking because it reverberates inside. But it's not too bad, and it'll be off soon,” Holl says.

“I don't know what the deal is. Once a year I end up in the bubble, and somehow I get hit in the face. I try to think about, like, what am I doing wrong to put myself in these positions? I don't know.”

As Holl explains, he speaks through missing a bottom tooth from his Marlies days. He spent some bubble time after that injury, too.

11. You can debate whether the Maple Leafs’ Justin Bieber–designed reversible sweaters looked good. (I’m partial to straight blue and white. Also, I’m old as hell and not the target demographic here.)

What you cannot debate is that the Martha Stewart–leaked Drew House collab was a hit.

The alternates quickly became the top-selling item on both the U.S. and Canadian version of the NHL’s online shop and a tough jersey to obtain.

“I am a Justin Bieber fan, yeah. The music gets played in my house. I like it myself. He’s an icon,” Jason Spezza says. “I think it’s cool that he actually follows the team and he’s into it.”

Adds Bieber’s buddy, Auston Matthews: “Just having him come down, meet a lot of the guys, share that experience was a lot of fun for everybody.”

A third partner, Tim Hortons, jumped into the fray and dropped limited-edition blue-and-yellow Next Gen Timbits.

Cross-marketing, folks. It works.

12. Quote of the Week goes to brand-new Florida Panther Claude Giroux, who considered the idea of playing with centre Aleksander Barkov: “It’ll be like the first day of school. I’ll just be giggling.”

In his 1,001st game — and first wearing something other than Philly orange and black — Giroux notched two assists.

Methinks he’ll fit in just fine.

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