Matthews to Matthew: Knies hoping to add another name to Arizona's short NHL résumé

ASU recruited Deer Valley product, but he will play at Minnesota next season

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Arizona hockey fans like to claim several NHL players as their own. It may be an insecurity thing, but it’s also disingenuous. While it is true that Sean Couturier, Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk would make for an effective forward line on the all-Arizona team, there is little that ties the trio to the state beyond their birth and their fathers’ careers. All three moved away when they were very young, they have few, if any memories of their time spent here, and all three honed their hockey skills elsewhere.

It doesn't hurt that Auston Matthews is the state’s standard bearer, even if he was born in California (gasp!) before moving here as a baby, but the Coyotes’ 25-year Valley existence was bound to provide Matthews with some company.

Deer Valley product Matthew Knies hopes he can become one of those guys.

Knies is a prototypical power forward for Tri-City in the USHL, where he serves as an alternate captain in his second season with the Storm. Arizona State recruited him heavily, but he will play at Minnesota next season.

“In fairness to Matthew and some Arizona kids, we’re not quite there yet,” said Sun Devils coach Greg Powers, whose team begins a two-game series at Minnesota on Thursday. “The kids that are prospects right now didn’t grow up thinking they were going to be Sun Devils because the program wasn’t around. They grew up with the goal of playing for a blue-blood program. He’s a very talented kid and a high-end recruit that we definitely wanted and unfortunately didn’t get, but we wish that kid nothing but the very best because he’s a terrific kid.”

Knies played most of his youth hockey career with the Jr. Coyotes, affording him the benefit of high-end coaching from several former players including Shane Doan, Steve Sullivan, Derek Morris, Michal Rozsíval and Tyson Nash. He exploded onto the USHL scene as a rookie last season with Tri-City, scoring 14 goals and totaling 45 points in 44 games. As late as October, The Athletic’s uber connected prospects writer, Corey Pronman, had Matthews rated as the 31st best 2021 draft-eligible prospect, making him a late first-round pick.

But a challenging offseason and a slow start in 2021 have hurt his stock a bit through the Storm’s first 15 games, where he has two goals and eight points. Some scouts now view Knies as a second- or even a third-round pick, but there is plenty of time to alter that view again, considering it took just three months to alter the original view.

“He has scored his whole life and I have no doubt he’s going to start scoring again this year,” said Tri-City coach Anthony Noreen, noting that the Storm still has 36 games left on its schedule. “The USHL has got to be one of the most over-scouted leagues in the world because there aren’t many leagues playing right now. We knew there were going to be a ton of eyes on him this year and that he’d be picked apart every night so we said, ‘Let’s make sure they never say, ‘He can do this but he can’t do that.’

“We want him to be a complete, 200-foot player where people say ‘Here is a power forward who can score, who competes, who can play a 200-foot game, who kills penalties, who plays on the power play and is one of the key defensive players on the team and also offensively.’ In a normal year, I’d probably be a little worried where scouts only see him once or twice and talk about his numbers being down, but there have been so many eyes on him this year that hopefully they realize he plays the right way, he is around it all the time and he is getting tons of chances, so don't get too caught up in the numbers.”

It was a disjointed offseason for Knies, who spent most of it in Arizona. The gyms and ice arenas were often closed so he and his brother Phil, a senior forward at Miami (Ohio), sought some advice and capital from their parents to keep up with their training and development.

“We made our own set-up at home; bought some equipment,” Knies said. “We did mostly off-ice stuff with strength and mobility, but we also made a set-up so we could shoot some pucks. It wasn't terrible but we had to adjust and stay away from the ice for a few months. I was not used to that.

“When our season finally picked up (at Tri-City), we had some troubles with COVID here and there and some canceled games.”

Knies’ season was also interrupted by a two-game suspension, but he is trying to put a brave face on all of the stops and starts.

“We haven’t had many problems with canceled games recently so I know I am really fortunate that our league is playing and I am able to train and skate every day and be able to play, especially in front of fans,” he said. “It has been really awesome for me. I’m finally getting a taste of what it was like before COVID again. I have nothing to complain about.”

Knies’ hockey history is known to the sport’s most ardent followers in Arizona, but here’s a refresher. His parents moved to Arizona from Bratislava, Slovakia while Phil was a small child, and before Matthew was born. That explains the idolizing of Slovak stars Marián Gáborík and Marián Hossa, and it explains the photo of Zdeno Chára that still sits in Matthew’s room.

Most of the Knies’ relatives are still in Slovakia, so the family takes a semi-regular vacations to the homeland and city that most famously produced the Šťastný brothers.

“I’m not exactly fluent in Slovak but I speak a good amount,” Knies said. “I like going back there.”

Matthew and Phil learned to skate in Peoria, but when both decided they wanted to take the game a little more seriously, they moved to the Ice Den Scottsdale and the Jr. Coyotes.

“It was always Josh Doan and Matthew Knies as the mainstays of the ‘02 birth year,” said Mike DeAngelis, who was the director of the program at the time. “Once they got up to Midgets 15 and 16, (Shane Doan) and I took them and coached that team for a couple of years.”

Being coached by Doan was a thrill for Knies, who became a Coyotes fan during the 2011-12 season when the team advanced to the Western Conference Final.

“Those two watched all of the Coyotes game to see how the pros play,” DeAngelis said. “It’s still rare for kids around here to come up in the hockey culture and study it the way they did, but I think it really influenced the way they approached the game.”

While Josh Doan was the embodiment of his dad in forging friendships with all of his teammates, Knies was all business.

“Matthew was a really good passer, had great vision, high hockey IQ, a hard worker, a really committed kid,” DeAngelis said. “His brother had a huge influence on him and there was not a lot of fooling around once he got on the ice. 

“Sometimes we had to tell him to lighten up. One time, I think we even threw him off the ice because he was having a hissy fit because something wasn't going his way. He was strictly business when he was 14 and 15. He acted like he was already in juniors at 15.”

Shane Doan remembers Josh and Matthew as the two smallest kids on the team in their U14 year, but then Knies hit a growth spurt that edged him close to his current standing (per the Storm’s website) of 6-feet-3, 203 pounds (Josh Doan is also 6-3). Knies had always played a more skilled game, but when the Jr. Coyotes U15 team advanced to the national tournament, becoming the first AAA team in the organization to do so, he got a hint of what was possible with his size in the team’s first game.

“The puck drops and I'm running the D and I put my arms around my D-men’s shoulders to encourage them,” Doan said, laughing. “I’m like, ‘How fun is this? We’re at nationals.’ I’m all rah-rah, like, ‘This is going to be great’ and I look up and it’s already 1-0 four or five seconds into the game. We’re already behind.

“I was like, ‘Oh, boy. We could be in trouble here.’ This was our first time at nationals and there’s that moment where you wonder, ‘Are we over our skis?’ Then Matty took over that game. I think he had four points (four primary assists) and we won, 6-5. It was so much fun to watch. He realized he was bigger and stronger and faster than everybody. We lost in the semifinals to the team that won it (Buffalo Jr. Sabres), but he was incredible in that tournament.”

Doan’s other lasting memory of Knies’ newfound strength was a moment that would make old-time hockey fans smile.

“He hit a boy with an open ice hit that was like, really, really good,” said Doan, who had to pause to laugh at the memory. “It was like, ‘Oh no! Matty is starting to realize he is no longer the smallest guy out there.’ It was a legit, open ice, perfectly timed. I started laughing and I thought, ‘He’s not going to be fun to play against.’”

Although a two-game stint with Tri-City during his U16 year opened Knies’ eyes to how how much work he still had to do, Doan still doesn’t think Knies fully grasps what is possible with his new body.

“If he wants to, he can take over a game physically, skill-wise or with determination,” Doan said. “He is blessed with so many different things. His hands are so good and he’s so deceptive that sometimes you fall into this trap of thinking in order to be good you have to be beating guys one-on-one, scoring in every period. Realistically, he can influence the game just as much with his physical side but I don’t think it’s as natural to him as the offensive side. He doesn’t fully appreciate how big and strong he is yet. When he does, he is going to be fun to watch.”

Knies is currently home in Arizona during a weeklong break in the Storm’s schedule, but he is battling a bout of strep throat that could keep him out of Tri-City’s next couple of games against Lincoln.

He knows this is a draft year and his performance over the next three-plus months will greatly influence what happens at the NHL Draft in July, but he is trying to keep those thoughts at bay.

“I have been held off the score sheet a little bit and it has been kind of frustrating for me, but I am trying to add to the team as much as I can, whether it’s off the ice or on the ice, being vocal, being a leader,” he said. “I think it’s almost mental at this point, but if I think about it too much I step away from my game so I need to focus on playing well, making my teammates better and that’s when it will come.”

His greatest coaching influences, Noreen, DeAngelis and Doan, all agree, and Doan told him so in a recent phone conversation when Knies reached out to discuss his struggles.

“Matty had a lot of success last year and I have talked with him about how hard it is in that second year when offensively, you think it should come easier and it doesn’t,” Doan said. “There were a lot of accolades for him last year and sometimes there’s that mindset that, ‘OK, I've made it and now I can take a breath.’ Sometimes, that breath causes you to slip just a little bit and then you have to learn how to fight to get it back again.”

Doan understands the pressures that come with a draft year, but he hopes Knies keeps everything in perspective.

“I get teased about how big a fan I am of him, but I am really high on him,” Doan said. “He’s a big kid with incredible hands. I think he has the potential to be a really good player, and all of that hope and promise is still ahead of him.

“This little blip on the radar that he’s going through at the moment isn't going to last. He could score seven goals in his next four games and be right back where he wants to be. Regardless, he’s going to have a successful career playing hockey, whether it’s at Minnesota or wherever he goes after that.”

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