When can Matthew Knies join Leafs and why is there so much hype?

For Toronto Maple Leafs fans, the time is Knies.

The NCAA men’s hockey championship kicks off on Thursday night as the best 16 teams in men’s college hockey will scrap it out for a chance to play for the national title at Amalie Arena in Tampa on April 8.

The Maple Leafs organization and its fans will no doubt be more invested than usual in this year’s event because of one player: Matthew Knies. The 57th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft leads the top-ranked University of Minnesota into the tournament, and it’s almost a certainty the 20-year-old will begin his NHL career with Toronto when the collegiate season ends.

when can matthew knies join leafs and why is there so much hype?

Could University of Minnesota star Matthew Knies be an X-factor for the Maple Leafs this spring? (Getty Images)

Here’s what you need to know about the top prospect’s NHL eligibility, AHL status, contract situation and skillset ahead of the NCAA tournament and his inevitable Maple Leafs debut.

When can Knies actually play for the Leafs? 

    Knies could ink a deal with the Maple Leafs as soon as his NCAA season comes to an end.

    Minnesota squares off with Canisius at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday as the single-elimination tourney kicks off. If the Gophers get sent packing early via an upset, then Knies could be with the Leafs by the end of this weekend.

    If Minnesota goes all the way to the championship game on April 8, the Leafs will have just three regular season games remaining to get Knies up to speed before the Stanley Cup playoffs open up.

    Knies could sign if Minnesota is knocked out in either the quarters or semis of the tournament, which are scheduled for March 25 and April 6, respectively.

What are the contract ramifications if Knies signs now?

    To join the Leafs for their playoff run this year, Knies will need to sign his three-year entry-level deal when his college season is done, which would burn a whole year off the deal and cost Toronto a year of control down the line.

    Knies will become a restricted free agent at the end of the 2024-25 campaign rather than 2025-26, and will also be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent a year earlier than if he signed his deal with Toronto next season.

    Since Knies is already 20 years old, he is ineligible for an “entry level slide” which essentially extends everything by a year if the player signs his entry-level contract at either 18 or 19 years old before Sept. 15 of the signing year and does not play 10 games in the NHL that season.

Will he be eligible to play for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies? 

    In short, the answer is no, as Knies is ineligible to play for the Marlies this season if he plays a game with the Leafs after his college season concludes, based on the current NHL-AHL agreement.

    Toronto intentionally left one open contract slot and just enough cap space to fit a maximum-salary entry-level contract into the mix, signalling that the club intends to go the NHL route right away with Knies, who has some leverage and could return to school without a one-way NHL deal.

    The Leafs could try and finesse an entry-level deal that doesn’t begin until next season and plug Knies into the Marlies lineup for their Calder Cup run this year, but that seems very unlikely at this point.

Why is there so much hype? 

    Knies is a top-10 Hobey Baker finalist and was named Big Ten Conference Player of the Year this season.

    He has some quality experience competing against “men” in a high-pressure environment after suiting up for Team USA at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, where he posted a goal and two assists in four games as a 19-year-old.

    His 21 goals ranked fifth in the nation this season, while his 41 points ranked 15th in college hockey, although third on his team behind linemates Logan Cooley (4th) and Jimmy Snuggerud (5th).

    Knies’ seven game-winning goals — including three in overtime — led D1 hockey in 2022-23.

    Listed at 6-foot-3, Knies has bulked up to around 210 pounds and has shown the physical edge and capabilities needed to compete during the Stanley Cup playoffs as a 20-year-old — at least in theory.

    Boasts a natural goal-scoring ability and is equally adept on the playmaking side of things.

    A solid two-way player who possesses elite takeaway skills and doesn’t mind doing the dirty work in his own end, along the wall and on the penalty kill.

    Provides a versatile skill set that could see him grab a spot as a top-six winger or provide some punch for Toronto lower down the lineup.

    The Maple Leafs simply haven’t had a big, skilled, polished prospect ready to jump into the lineup for a stretch run in quite some time, if ever.

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