Matthew Knies’ playing career is already 10 times better than mine ever was, so the following isn’t to compare us as equals. But I do have the experience of going from an NCAA top line to playing professional hockey, even if my own NHL debut ended with me in the ECHL by the time my season started.
I did see and feel things the great players around me did, and I did sit in those dressing rooms while the coaches explained what they wanted from us. (Eventually, I’d even scrutinize video in the AHL to see where players could give our team a little more.)
The point here is that I feel comfortable saying, without any equivocation, that the ask of a professional hockey player is far more detailed than that of a college player, even for those at top programs.
Detail. That’s the word I want to key in on today.
From a fan’s perspective, you could see how climbing the ranks would be challenging on the surface level. You go from playing 18-23 year olds in college to full-grown men in the NHL, who are bigger, stronger, and faster than you’re used to. Adjusting to that is a little like running on a treadmill, where after 10 minutes you decide to crank it up for a bit. The first 20 strides or so feel strained, then you’re able to keep your rhythm for a while, but until that top speed becomes something you’ve done over and over, the pace can be tough to sustain over a long period.
There’s a lot of conversation around how the Leafs forward lines will look heading into the playoffs, with a big question mark being “what will they get out of Matthew Knies?”
For context, Knies is at the tail end of a season that saw him win Player of the Year in his conference and his team is in the Frozen Four, but he did go pointless in his team’s first two tournament games (where they scored 13 times).
Knies’ coach Bob Motzko offered this on the player: “He’s going to really heal up now. He’s been battling some stuff. It’s not going away real easy for him.”
So that’s a concern of sorts, but the Leafs will be heading towards the end of their season by making “best case scenario” plans before they start considering alternatives if things like injuries hamper their designs.
I threw out some “best case scenario” lines this morning, which I suggested look like this:
There’s tons to debate here. I think it’s possible that with Matthews going as well as he is, the best look for the Leafs might be to put William Nylander on his wing. It would free up Marner to help Tavares, and gives the team more scoring depth. The Leafs may question a Bunting-Tavares-Nylander line defensively, too.
But I wanted to look more closely at that Knies spot, and consider what they can fairly expect from him…by looking at what exactly is going to be expected of him. It’s not as simple as “does he have the tools to play in the NHL” because we know he does have great raw abilities. The details that go into getting it right can be very challenging for a young player.
The Leafs thought they had found money in Nick Robertson back when they were trying to get past Columbus in the 2020 play-in series, and I wrote then about how Robertson wasn’t ready with his details. Knies is obviously a far bigger player, but he still plays an offensive-minded game. The trick for players making the jump is to be useful when you aren’t providing offence, so the team will keep you in the lineup and on the ice enough for the chances to start coming. As of yet, Robertson hasn’t mastered those details (to go with his unfortunate injury luck).
This is a crucial time of the season for the Leafs, at a crucial point in their history with this core, so it’d be a tough time for any player to make mistakes and casually chalk it up to a “learning experience.”
So, we can point out some things that I see young players most commonly fail to execute early in their transition to the NHL that they must learn to stay in the lineup. First, an obvious one:
Execute the role of F3
Keeping an F3 is simply being cognizant that, among your forward line, somebody needs to stay on the high side of the play. That doesn’t mean you can’t go down and get involved, it just means that when you do your linemates need to recognize it and someone has to pull out.
If you’re F3 and both your linemates are pinned against the wall battling for a puck, they obviously can’t make that read, so you can’t just dive in after a loose puck because you’re risking an odd-man rush going back the other way.
In college, when you’re far better than everyone else both skill- and team-wise, this risk-taking doesn’t hurt you much. You often win the puck or your superior D shuts down the rush when it goes wrong. But Tampa Bay, as an NHL example, will make you pay.
Once Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon or, say, Brayden Point are up to full speed, you’re pretty much helpless. So in the NHL, forwards are asked to prevent that from happening as play transitions with “stings” or “cut-offs.”
As your opponent breaks the puck out and heads up the ice, you’re asked to run interference (the kind that literally never gets called) by giving a little shot to the nearest player to slow their momentum, or even just getting in their skating lane. It’s amazing how often a player will have their initial push of speed taken away with a little half-cross-check, then just decide they’re not going to get enough speed to join the play, and decide to hang back.
Up until pro, players mostly just skate back to their own end thinking “well, I can’t do anything about that rush from back here.” In the NHL, you’re always in the play and can help.
Wall pile positioning
When there’s a puck battle along the wall a whole bunch of players can get caught without any momentum, and when the puck does squirt out it can occasionally allow a player to get a quick rush. If you cheat on the offensive side of a pile in particular, a lucky bounce can leave you with the puck on your stick and oceans of room ahead.
The only problem is that if it doesn’t go your way, you’re in real trouble. Teams always want their opposition to have to go through players, rather than making it easy for them. Younger offensive players often feel they’ll be judged by their stats, so they take that risk. If you’re playing third line in the playoffs, you better not be a “take that risk” kind of guy, or you won’t play at all.
Defending players, not areas of ice
In most cases the weak side winger in the D-zone should be about in the slot somewhere between the hashmarks. At lower levels, if you’re in that spot when things go wrong, you can at least tell your coach “I was where you told me to be.”
But guys in the NHL have such quick releases that being three feet away from them is as good as being 30. Where you’re supposed to be is just a guideline for “take the player closest to that area.” That can be a tough adjustment – close to correct is just wrong.
Making sure the puck is out
I was a winger, and when you see that your other winger has the puck in the D-zone and the opposing D are a little flat-footed, it can be really tempting to ramp up to top speed immediately and push for a rush.
But if you blow the zone – and you’re not someone like Nylander who gets some grace thanks to his elite track record – you had better be sure that puck is going to get out. Because if you’re in the neutral zone as the puck is being shot into your net – god forbid by someone on the part of the ice you should be defending – you won’t play for a long, long time.
Appropriately assessing when to try and beat someone 1-on-1
If you’re down 4-1 in the third and you’re the first guy up the ice without any passing options, a coach will tolerate you trying to put the puck through the defenceman’s feet and turning it over, since you’re trying to create something. If you’re the last forward up the rink in a one-goal game and you try a cheeky nutmeg in the neutral zone that wouldn’t even get you anywhere dangerous if it works out, you’re going to watch a few shifts.
When you’ve been the elite guy with a huge leash from your coach at other levels, it can be hard to stop playing with thoughts like “this is unlikely but if it works it’ll be sick.” But you don’t have a choice.
Switch in defensive zone
Some teams play a man-on-man system in the D-zone (Carolina for example, who have elite D-men), which is easy enough to execute. It’s black and white. But the Leafs play a zone (which I prefer for most teams), and hand off players to their teammates as they enter their area of the ice. It involves swapping coverages, thinking, communicating, and reading the play. It’s not that hard, honestly, but if you haven’t done it, a blown switch could lead to a glaring chance against.
Get off when play goes the right way, even when not tired
At the end of a 40-second shift you might see some great players decide to stay on the ice if the puck is going up ice on a rush. I say “you might see some great players” doing it, because if a middle six forward does it they get in trouble. That “extra” rush can lead to a tired player and if the play comes back the other way, they become a useless defensive forward and essentially render their team shorthanded. Even if you aren’t tired by 30-40 seconds you change in the playoffs when your team is going the right way.
Play your game
This is why all of the above is so challenging for a young player who’s just stepping into the NHL. How do you do all those things for the team and still “play your game?”
“Run faster than you ever have, but also more carefully.”
You think your game is offence, which a young player may equate to taking chances, but NHL teams don’t see generating offence from chance-taking as worthwhile or successful in the playoffs. It has to be solid and sustainable, and not built on luck.
You have to do the right things long enough to earn opportunities with linemates or ice time that opens the door to offensive chances (which often come off breakdowns by the opposition) where you can really show what you can do.
I don’t know what Matthew Knies will be for the Leafs, whether we’re talking big picture or just this season. I just know that there are a lot of challenges for guys in his spot, and Toronto is full of players (like Zach Aston-Reese) who execute the details really well.
Knies will be given an opportunity, for sure – the team wants to score more goals than they currently do – but to get to do that, he’ll have to show he can master the little things, too.