As Maple Leafs development camp began, Fraser Minten — the Leafs’ top pick in the 2022 NHL draft — asked the just-retired Jason Spezza what he thought separated elite players from the rest of the pack.
Spezza’s answer shone a light — perhaps unknowingly — on Matthew Knies, and why the Leafs top pick in the 2021 draft is the top prospect at this camp and the name other GMs keep wanting to throw into trade packages with the Leafs.
“(Spezza) said their self-awareness was really good, they’re always able to improve themselves and critique themselves,” said Minten.
That in a nutshell describes Knies, a 6-foot-3 power winger who wrestled with the idea of turning pro with the Maple Leafs in May only to decide to go back to the University of Minnesota for a second season.
“I don’t think I was ready to make this step yet,” said Knies. “Off the ice, on the ice, I don’t think I was mature enough as a player, as a person.
“I want to become a two-way player, I want to be a complete player, playing both ends. Once I mature myself as a player, I think that’s when I can make a step and give the Leafs a boost and try to make them a better team.”
Knies was making his first appearance in Toronto since being taken 57th overall in 2021. He missed last season’s development camp – held in September – because school had already started. So he’s doing some catching up, shaking hands with team president Brendan Shanahan and getting to know the support staff and a little bit of the city he – presumably – will call home one day.
There’s a buzz about him and his pedigree. A Phoenix native, Knies was coached as a youngster by Shane Doan, and now plays like Doan, and gets some mentoring from fellow Arizona resident and future teammate Auston Matthews.
“I have a big size and I’m a strong player, so I like to use that to my advantage,” said Knies. “That’s what can help make that next step.”
Of all the 43 players in camp, Knies is closest to NHL ready, having played in the Olympics, and he’ll get a second shot at the world juniors in August.
“He’s a big boy,” said assistant general manager Hayley Wickenheiser, who is overseeing the camp. “He’s got all the tools. He fully knows where he stands and the order of where his career might go. So we have no problem being patient with him. We look forward to just seeing his trajectory over the course of the season. He has a long way to go, but he’s also already knocking at the door.”
To open that door would require him to sign a contract. There would be those who fret that Knies might remain in college for the full four years, invoking a clause in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement that would turn him into an unrestricted free agent.
Based on his answers, that seems doubtful. Others might fret GM Kyle Dubas will trade Knies – as he has other prospects – for help in the playoffs. But Knies – next season – might be the help the team needs in the playoffs.
Last year, when the college season ended, Dubas managed to sign Nick Abruzzese (a 2019 pick) from Harvard, who played nine games with the Leafs. But he couldn’t convince Knies, who would have had the same playing opportunity, to give up his college career after one season.
“He (Dubas) made me feel comfortable and part of that Leafs family,” said Knies. “I felt that they really needed me and they really wanted me. I felt as if they had my best interest in mind, that they wanted me to become the best player I can.
“So they left the decision up to me. They were really professional about it and really helpful.”
Ultimately he chose having a shot at winning a national championship in the NCAA – the Gophers are stacked – over possibly touring the minor-league towns in buses with the Marlies.
“A lot of thought went into it,” said Knies. “I talked to my family, all my friends. I had a lot of people in my ear telling me what to do. 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. I know it’s a big step the next season. And also now I’m trying to make it a much smoother transition. I think I’m going to develop a lot next year and hopefully I can join at the end of the season.”
One of those players reaching out to Knies was Matthews, who grew up with Knies’ older brother Phillip.
“He was a big influence on my game and someone I always looked up to as well,” Knies said of Matthews. “He also reached out to me and is someone I really would like to listen to and take advice from. He has been real helpful.
“He said just be patient. Make sure you’re ready for the jump. I know he made it right away, but there’s not many guys like Auston. (He said) be patient, work on your skills and help yourself. Make sure you’re ready to make the next step, because it’s definitely a big one.”
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