Matthew Knies, it’s your chance to shine in the Sunshine State.
The Maple Leafs will begin their five-game trip against the Panthers on Thursday in Florida with a new look in the forward group, with Knies getting a boost.
During practice at the Ford Performance Center on Wednesday, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe moved Knies into the top six, placing him on the second line alongside captain John Tavares and William Nylander.
Expect to see this formation when the Leafs visit the Panthers’ renamed home of Amerant Bank Arena for the first time since their loss to Florida in the second round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Keefe also had veterans Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok flanking freshman Fraser Minten on the third line.
Tyler Bertuzzi had a maintenance day – perhaps a bit concerning considering the Leafs had a full day off on Tuesday – and was not on the ice, even though Keefe had expected Bertuzzi to play against the Panthers.
It is assumed that the move from Knies will allow the 21-year-old to make his presence felt more clearly.
“I think Knies has a lot more to offer us,” Keefe said. “Knees’ minutes (average of 12 minutes and 12 seconds) are too low.
“I think Knies actually played well. I just lost him a little on this line. When he goes on tour, it’s a good chance for him to get more involved with these guys.”
Although the Leafs have won two of their first three games, Keefe continues to be on a learning curve with the forward group, learning how to best utilize each player. Of course, we’re not referring to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Tavares and Nylander.
And David Kampf’s fourth line between Noah Gregor and Ryan Reaves remains.
Simply put, the forwards signed in the summer, including Bertuzzi, Domi and Reaves, do not have the defensive performance that the departed Ryan O’Reilly, Alex Kerfoot and Noel Acciari offered. Trading Sam Lafferty a few weeks ago for salary cap reasons didn’t help either.
Bertuzzi will keep his spot with Matthews and Marner, but we wonder if Knies will get a spot there at some point.
Domi was ineffective early in his tenure with the Leafs, recording one assist and four shots on goal. Defensive play is not his strength and his puck handling is also at stake.
Domi, Knies and Reaves are the only three Leafs not on the ice for a Toronto goal at 5-on-5.
“The players have to find their game individually,” said Keefe. “I have to help them with this. At the same time, there are a lot of people you want to introduce and get used to.
“You try to find the right mix for everyone, but everyone is responsible for the minutes they get.
“Things will sort themselves out, but as we get going, realigning the lines is more about getting the guys out there more consistently. Special teams always play a role too.”
Playing alongside Minten, another freshman, from the start could have caused Knies to falter after his splash last spring. If Knies plays with Tavares and Nylander, he will have a greater chance to utilize his offensive abilities.
Knies didn’t disagree with the idea that he needs to remain undetected in the offensive zone. He only has four shots on goal.
“I mean, yeah,” Knies said. “I just try to do my best and contribute in every way.
“I want to score. I want to be on the other end. I have to give in a little and execute, and I think it will work out.
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“I don’t necessarily concentrate on the goal. I concentrate on dominating the line opposite me. Then the goals and everything happen.”
Knies has developed a good bond with Tavares off the ice and is settling back into the captain’s house. Knies’ birthday was Tuesday and Tavares said his two young sons were excited to sing Happy Birthday and give Knies his presents: a suitcase and a shirt.
Now there is a chance for the relationship to thrive in the workplace.
“It’s amazing how physically mature and dominant he can be at his age,” Tavares said. “We value him very much and know that he has enormous potential. I enjoyed getting to know him off the ice, which can only help on the ice.”