Maple Leafs’ Matthew Knies ‘fired up’ for meaningful Arizona homecoming

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke highly of the effort rookie Matthew Knies has brought to the table in the recent string of games, saying that he's "taken change" and that he's seen growth in his game.

TEMPE, Ariz. — They say we only tease the ones we love.

So, when Matthew Knies takes a lighthearted jab at 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, it’s because the rookie has long had his Arizona homecoming affectionately circled on the calendar.

Born and raised in the Phoenix area, Knies is a proud Arizonan who will tuck his own personal cheering section into the cozy confines of the Arizona Coyotes‘ temporary home rink.

Plenty of Knies’s supporters will make their way to the ASU campus to root on the enemy Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night.

“About 50 or 60 — which is probably a section at that arena,” Knies quips, flashing a playful grin. Hey-oh!

“So, it’s an exciting time. I’m just happy that I can have friends and family there to watch and just super pumped for it.”

The 21-year-old is coming home hot.

After impressing early, swiftly taking over top-line left-wing duties and registering the first Gordie Howe hat trick for the Leafs in nearly nine years, the power forward hit a bit of a rookie wall in January.

But the all-star break and much-needed chance to rest and reset has served the kid well.

“I’m playing hard,” says Knies, charged with Zach Hyman’s old role of fetching the puck for the superstars. “I’m skating. Putting pressure on them, making the D turn and just creating havoc in front and creating opportunities for my teammates.”

On Saturday, his dogged forechecking led to a nifty behind-the-net pass to centreman Auston Matthews for a quick strike that set the tone for a rout.

On Monday, Knies broke open a sleepy matinee in St. Louis with a nasty, defence-splitting solo effort for his 10th and most impressive goal of the season. 

Precisely the type of beauty-meets-brawn highlight management dreamed about when selecting the six-foot-three, 217-pounder in the second round of the 2021 draft:

“Beautiful play,” Matthews raves. “He’s got great skill, and he just continues to get better and better. It’s been great to see. It’s fun playing with him.”

Echoes goalie Ilya Samsonov: “He’s on the next level right now.”

For Knies, that level has been achieved cheerfully but not easily.

The University of Minnesota product is accustomed to playing 40 games, not 82.

“It’s been a challenge,” Knies said a few weeks back, regarding the big-league grind. He has sat a couple games due to illness, dealt with a scary near-injury at practice, and been temporarily demoted to the bottom six in games where he’s struggled.

“I’m not used to playing this much hockey. If it were a college season, my season would be over with. So, it’s new that you just keep playing. I just got to manage my body and manage my workload.

“Lots of time to adjust your game or work at something that you might be struggling with. The NHL, the pace of it doesn’t allow for much of that. You got to be mentally tough. You got to adjust through video. You got to manage to take care of your body.”

That Knies gets to ride shotgun alongside Toronto’s dynamic duo of Matthews and Mitch Marner is both a treat and a test.

Constantly facing the opposition’s go-to checking line, particularly on the road, is demanding.

“You’re playing guys that want to shut you down on a daily basis. It’s difficult to play against their top guys, but I think it brings the best out of myself, out of our line as well, to play against the better players. So, yeah, it’s difficult. I’m still learning and adjusting to it, and I think it’s only going uphill,” says Knies, a natural optimist in interviews.

The left side of Toronto’s forward group has long been an area of turnover and need. So, it’s not nothing that Knies is finding the back of the net more often than 2023 free-agent splash Tyler Bertuzzi, who was given first crack alongside Matthews and Marner out of camp.

The salary structure of the Maple Leafs is such that they need a few entry-level contributors like Knies to thrive. And to that end, Arizona-based executive Shane Doan is available to offer Knies tips, and Keefe has steadily maintained an encouraging tone when evaluating the freshman.

“He’s been good. I think he’s been working and on the puck and making plays. It’s a great play he made to start the game the other day against Anaheim,” Keefe says. “I’ve seen some growth in his game, for sure. I think coming out of the break, it looks like he’s got a little more energy to him too, which is obviously important.”

Wednesday’s trip to Mullett is meaningful for Knies, who still carries some of that wide-eyed gratitude that comes with a young athletes’ first tour through the show. 

Not only is he following in the footsteps of Matthews and his buddy Josh Doan‘s dad, Shane, but they’re Leafs too. Used to be, waving the flag for desert hockey meant being a pioneer. Now, it’s a swelling wave.

“I’m pretty proud to be from Arizona,” Knies says, “and I just love representing it.”

Now in his eighth season, Matthews fondly recalls his first road game at home and still gets excited about these annual homecomings. He urges his young linemate to soak it in, enjoy it, but reminds that there is a job to do. (Perhaps a 50th goal to score and a fifth win to bank without Morgan Rielly?)

“I still forget I’m like five years older than Kniesy. It’s kinda funny because I grew up playing with his older brother [Phillip, now 25] and I was around Matthew a lot as well, so it’s really cool to be on the same team and playing together and knowing that our roots go back,” Matthews says.

“[Matthew] was always bigger than his brother. I just always remember that him and his brother were, like, just so jacked. Like, just so strong. And they had, like, eight-packs when they were eight years old. Their dad [Miro] is huge, too, so I can tell where they got it from. But they’re great people. Both him and his brother’s family is awesome. I know for them, it’s gonna be really, really special and exciting to watch their son play at home, so I’m really happy for him.”

Almost as happy as Knies and what should be a loud Mullett Arena cheer squad rolling up to 60 deep.

“Pretty fired up, just to see my fam and just to be around home,” Knies smiles. “It’s a lot of fun. 

“To get to play in that barn, I only played in a college game there. But now it’s going to be pretty exciting to play an NHL game there.”

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