Maple Leafs rookie Knies taking advantage of opportunity after Bunting’s blowup
May 27, 2023
Matthew Knies of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks to pass in the first period during Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on April 24 in Tampa.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
When you’re a star on the Maple Leafs, you have the luxury of time. If you’re going to talk to the media, you don’t rush up to the front of the room. You go in the back first and get yourself sorted out. Take a quick shower. Change, even.
Mid-playoff roster parachutist Matthew Knies doesn’t know those rules yet. So when one of the Leafs flacks sidled up to him as he came back into the room after practice and told him he was scrumming, Knies asked if he had time to take his helmet off.
When told yes, that’s all he did. Double-timed it to his locker, stuck his helmet in there and walked straight into the scrum, skates and all.
Knies was raised in Arizona. He played college hockey in Minneapolis. Was this the largest scrum he’d ever been in?
“Possibly,” Knies said. It was hard to tell if he was joking, or worried about being too affirmative and later being proved wrong.
Whatever it was, the effect is charming. A half-dozen games into his NHL career, Knies may not be a star, but he already has the look of one. It’s more bearing than anything else. In baseball they call it ‘good bodied.’ If you walked into the room without knowing who anyone was, Knies might be the guy you’d single out over some of his more famous teammates.
His opportunity came via an unfortunate accident, when Michael Bunting’s shoulder T-boned Erik Cernak’s skull in Game 1 of the Toronto-Tampa series.
A few days ago, Knies was Bunting’s suspension replacement. Now he’s Wally Pipp-ing him. Bunting’s back, but won’t be playing. Knies has his spot for now.
“We’re just comfortable with the group that’s been working here,” was Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe’s diplomatic way of putting it.
An undiplomatic way might be, ‘We’re not worried about Matthew Knies karate kicking someone into the goalmouth. The other guy? Well …’
To his credit, Bunting came out to take his licks. He didn’t seem happy about things, but nor did he seem obviously unhappy. As politics go, Bunting’s better at them without a stick in his hands.
“I’m just trying to help in any way I can and not be a distraction,” Bunting said.
It was an odd word to plop in there. How does one distract the team when one isn’t playing on it? But Bunting knows what he’s expected to say, and is doing his best to make sure everyone hears it.
And having said his piece, that was it. Nobody went in hard on it. You haven’t heard rumblings on talk radio about losing an irritant famed around the league and replacing him with a debutant few people outside Toronto had heard of.
For the Leafs to be in the spot they’re in, up 3-1 in the series, something had to change. The Leafs are terrible at explaining what that is. The best they can come up with is some bumpf about believing in themselves. What? They didn’t believe in themselves last year? Or when they were in a similar position on Montreal? So what happened? Did they all just get better life coaches?
What’s really changed is luck.
All the little things that have been going wrong for years are suddenly going right. The Knies-Bunting situation is a tidy example.
A year ago, or two, or three, this sort of disciplinary crack would have become a media Grand Canyon. We’d be having a whole conversation about the guy, and the coaches who abetted him, and the executives who signed him, and the parents who raised him. When things are going badly with the Leafs, everything they do eventually veers into sociology.
This time, there was none of that. People were more curious to see Knies arrive than they were angry at seeing Bunting go. Back in the Nazem Kadri days, there was no exciting second option.
If we’re going to go totally mercenary about this, the Bunting meltdown has worked out for Toronto. Cernak, one of Tampa’s defensive workhorses, hasn’t returned since being injured on that play.
Do Toronto’s consecutive third-period comebacks happen if Cernak is on the ice? Maybe.
You know what is for sure? That Toronto didn’t need Bunting to make them happen.
In chess terms, Toronto traded a pawn for a rook. Unfairly, but what are you going to do? Cry about it?
With Toronto’s stars playing up to their salaries, Knies doesn’t need to do anything remarkable. He just needs to not screw up in some spectacular way. If that’s the bar, he already seems more likely to jump it than the guy he’s replacing.
This switch also provides an easy-to-turn relief valve if Toronto loses on Thursday night.
Team didn’t have enough jump in its step? Need to stir things up more? Great – then you bring Bunting back for Game 6. That gives the media a bone to chew on on the off-day Friday.
If that doesn’t work out and it goes to a Game 7, then it doesn’t really matter who you have on the ice any more. It’s full-on panic stations at that point.
You couldn’t plan it this way, but this is how great teams do it. Things they didn’t foresee happening – even the bad things – just seem to turn out in their favour. The Leafs have never had that advantage. Now, all of a sudden, they do.
One other benefit of this is that Knies gets to acclimate himself to the big leagues without much attention being paid to how he’s managing. All he has to do is exist professionally.
After his media duties on Wednesday, Knies sat back down at his locker and awaited callers. He got a few. He seemed delighted to see every one of them. That will pass, but it’s always fun to watch them when they’re shiny and new and everything’s marvellous.
A month ago, Knies was a big fish in a little pond. Now he’s a minnow in the hockey ocean. He’s living in John Tavares’s basement, and following the captain to work every day in his rented Toyota.
“It’s fun to see that a lot of people in Toronto like hockey,” Knies said. “This is a whole new animal for me.”