Maple Leafs winger Matthew Knies has figured out his top-line assignment


When Matthew Knies was first placed alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner back on Nov. 6, the rookie wingerwas faced with an opportunity as compelling as it was complex.

On one hand, playing alongside two of the most dynamic offensive threats in the league seemed likely to put him in a prime position to produce. Alternatively, it was a high-pressure spot that asked a lot of a 21-year-old who’d played just 21 games, including playoffs, at the NHL level at that point. Matthews and Marner have quite the two-man game going, and finding a way to be an additive element to it without disrupting the flow isn’t a walk in the park.

In recent weeks Matthews has been scoring at a historic pace and Marner has shot up the points and assist leaderboards, which has overshadowed the contribution of Knies. Quietly the young winger has stepped things up in a way that’s helped the Maple Leafs’ top line click  something it didn’t do from the start. It’s worth remembering that this trio hardly hit the ground running as the Maple Leafs were outshot 51-38 at five-on-five in their first 10 games together, with an expected goal rate of 48.54.

While the unit started to ramp up through December and January — with a small break when Nylander took Marner’s place thrown in — it became fully actualized more recently. The trio’s on-ice numbers in February are impressive at five-on-five as they’ve more than doubled their opposition’s shots, produced a 7-2 scoring margin, and generated a high-danger chance rate of 70.27 percent.

Attributing that all to Knies would be foolish, but it’s clear the winger is figuring out how to best complement Matthews and Marner. For much of his time alongside that dynamic duo he’s looked like a passenger but more recently he’s done a much better job of finding his own offence as well, making the whole group more dangerous.

In his last eight game, Knies has six points with 18 shots on net. He’s taken at least two in all of those games, which is notable for a guy who managed more than one shot on net just 15 times in his first 47 games of the season and never had a multi-shot streak exceeding three.

While two shots is not a particularly high bar to clear, it’s significant considering that he averaged 1.36 in his first 36 games playing primarily alongside Matthews.

To give that number a little perspective, during that time he ranked 12th on the Maple Leafs in shots per game behind guys like Noah Gregor and Bobby McMann, before he was doing Bobby McMann things  despite all the time he spent in the offensive zone. In Michael Bunting’s two seasons with the Maple Leafs playing essentially the same role, he managed 2.18 shots per game.

Knies was clearly deferring to the big dogs on his line, and often defaulted to parking himself in front of the net and hoping to be disruptive.

Considering the rookie is working with a 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, residing in the crease will never be the worst play, but for much of the season it looked like that inclination might limit him to some degree.

Knies represents one of the best opportunities the Maple Leafs have had in years to develop a quality top-six forward to supplement their expensive core. Based on the hands, size, and shot, it’s fair for Toronto to envision him as at least a 20-goal guy for years to come but since 2000-01, players averaging fewer than 1.4 shots per game have scored 20-plus goals just 10 times. Even though Knies was contributing to a successful line, he wasn’t learning to do what will be expected of him going forward.

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That paradigm has shifted recently.

Knies isn’t exactly peppering the net, but there is evidence that he’s confidently hunting his own scoring opportunities. While this nifty move against the Anaheim Ducks happened in the midst of a change, it’s not the sort of maneuver he often attempted earlier in the season.

This play against the Blues is another example of the rookie’s increased aggression in recent weeks. It would’ve been easy to take this puck into the corner or try to drop it back to Marner, but he lets it rip from the midrange.

In that same game, he also scored an impressive goal that showed off why he should be prioritizing his own offence when the moment calls for it.

To be clear, when Knies, Matthews, and Marner jump over the boards that group’s primary goal is always going to be getting Matthews in positions to do what he does best. There is no disputing who the biggest threat on the line is, and the way Marner consistently looks for the NHL’s top goal scorer is a feature, not a bug. Knies is also a capable passer in his own right —  and when he sets up Matthews and Marner it doesn’t mean he’s sacrificing his developmental opportunities.

At the same time, the best version of the Maple Leafs’ top line incorporates Knies as a scoring threat, not just a pure puck retriever and netfront presence. In his 487:03 with Matthews at 5v5 this year, the Rocket Richard frontrunner has taken 72.7 percent more shots than Knies. Comparatively, Matthews had just 52.8 percent more attempts than Bunting at 5v5 in their seasons together.

Even though Knies is inexperienced, his skill set justifies him getting at least as big a piece of the pie as his predecessor had — not only to make things happen for Toronto in the present, but also to help him realize his potential as an offensive creator. The fact that we’re getting a better sense of how that works recently is just one of many positive developments the Maple Leafs have enjoyed this month.

(Top photo: Jeff Curry / USA Today)





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