Matthew Knies gets promotion as coach Sheldon Keefe tinkers with Maple Leafs lines

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Matthew Knies, it’s your chance to sparkle in the Sunshine State.

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The Maple Leafs will kick off a five-game trip on Thursday in Florida against the Panthers with a new look in the forward group, with Knies getting a bump up.

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During practice at the Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe moved Knies into the top six, slotting him on the second line alongside captain John Tavares and William Nylander.

Expect to see that formation when the Leafs visit the Panthers’ renamed home, Amerant Bank Arena, for the first time since losing to Florida in the second round of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Keefe also had veterans Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok flanking rookie 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, though Keefe expected that Bertuzzi will play against the Panthers.

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With the Knies move, the thinking is the 21-year-old can make his presence greater felt.

“I think Knies has a lot more to offer us,” Keefe said. “Knies’ minutes (an average of 12 minutes 12 seconds) are too low.

“I think Knies has actually played well. I’ve just lost him a little bit on that line. Coming out on the road, it’s a good chance for him to be more involved with those guys.”

The fact is, though the Leafs have won two of their first three games, Keefe remains on a learning curve with the forward group and how to best utilize each player. Of course, we’re not referring to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Tavares and Nylander. 

And the fourth line of David Kampf between Noah Gregor and Ryan Reaves will remain intact.

Simply put, the forwards that were signed during the summer, including Bertuzzi, Domi and Reaves, don’t have the kind of defensive jam that the departed Ryan O’Reilly, Alex Kerfoot and Noel Acciari provided. Trading Sam Lafferty a few weeks ago for salary-cap reasons also didn’t help.

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Bertuzzi will keep his spot with Matthews and Marner, but we wonder if Knies eventually will get a look there.

Domi has been ineffective early in his Leafs tenure, recording one assist and registering four shots on goal. Defensive play is not his strong suit and his puck management also is on the table.

Domi, Knies and Reaves are the only three Leafs who have not been on the ice for a Toronto goal at 5-on-5.

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“Players have to find their game individually,” Keefe said. “I have to help them along with that. At the same time, you’ve got a lot of guys that you’re trying to introduce and get comfortable.

“You’re trying to try to find the right mix for everybody, but everybody is responsible for the minutes that they do get.

“Things will settle into place, but as we go out on the road, the rejigging of the lines is more about trying to more consistently get guys out there. Special teams always play a role too.”

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Having Knies play with Minten, another rookie, from the start might have put a stall on Knies following the splash he made last spring. Playing with Tavares and Nylander will provide Knies with a greater chance to take advantage of his offensive skills. 

Knies didn’t disagree with idea that he needs to get untracked in the offensive zone. He has just four shots on goal.

“I mean, yeah,” Knies said. “I’m just trying to do my best, try to contribute in every aspect. 

“I want to score. I want to be on the other end of it. I got to bear down a little bit and execute and I think it’s going to come.

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“I don’t necessarily focus on scoring. I focus on dominating the line across from me. That’s when the goals and everything happen.”

Knies has bonded well with Tavares off the ice, taking up residence again at the captain’s home. Knies’ birthday was on Tuesday and Tavares said his two young sons were thrilled to sing Happy Birthday and give Knies his presents: A suitcase and a shirt.

Now, there’s an opportunity for the relationship to flourish at work.

“It’s amazing how physically mature and dominant he can be at his age,” Tavares said. “We think very highly of him and know he has tremendous potential. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him off the ice, which can only help on the ice.”

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