What Leafs' goalie chaos reveals about plans with Knies
At the centre of the Maple Leafs' unconventional goalie moves is a plan to give Matthew Knies some game action. Photo by Chris O'Meara/AP.

By setting in motion the chaotic sequence of events that will see the Maple Leafs finish the regular season with a rotating cast of amateur goalies taking a turn in uniform, we learned a little something about how the front office currently views the world.

For starters, it’s pretty apparent that Kyle Dubas and Co. didn’t place much stock in the final four games on the schedule with home-ice advantage against the Tampa Bay Lightning already secured and only the health of the roster to protect.

More intriguingly, though, it became clear that 20-year-old forward Matthew Knies is considered as a potential factor for this year’s playoffs to a much higher degree than anyone within the organization had previously let on.

There was a much smoother road available to the Leafs in recent days, and it wouldn’t have necessitated the slew of phone calls exchanged between assistant general manager Brandon Pridham and his former colleagues at NHL Central Registry, let alone those required to get multiple undrafted goaltenders down to Florida just in case they were needed.

The Leafs could simply have given Knies a couple days to lick his wounds following a heartbreaking overtime loss in last weekend’s NCAA championship game and signed him to his entry-level contract once this year’s salary cap stopped being a concern entering the playoffs without causing any disruption whatsoever.

That they instead went through all of this is a pretty strong tell about the growing possibility Knies is more than just a “happy to be there” experience-gatherer soaking in the sights and sounds of the post-season.

Why else would the team make transactions last weekend that appeared to be geared toward gaining a Roster Emergency Exception as set out under Article 50.10 (e) of the collective bargaining agreement before signing him? Why else would they push forward and dress amateur goalies Jett Alexander, Nick Chenard and Matt Onuska in successive games after initially being unable to secure that exemption from Central Registry?

And why would they throw Knies into back-to-back NHL contests directly out of the gate Monday and Tuesday, completing a mind-boggling four-day window where he not only saw his NCAA career end but also travelled back to the University of Minnesota with teammates late Saturday night before immediately turning around and joining the Leafs in Florida?

“It’s never going to be perfect at this time of the year with that,” Dubas told reporters before Toronto’s 4-3 win in Tampa on Tuesday. “We just thought it’s an option for us. We don’t know what the option is.

“I don’t want to put any undue pressure on him, but [we wanted to] let him fly and see what he can do.”

It almost feels unfair to have to make any judgments at all about a player taking his initial steps as a pro under these unusual conditions, except that’s all the Leafs have to go on while gauging his readiness, too.

After Thursday’s regular-season finale against the New York Rangers, Knies will have played three NHL games without yet even experiencing a formal practice with his new team.

He represents a fascinating lineup decision entering next week’s best-of-seven playoff series with Tampa because the Leafs already seemingly have 12 forwards slotted ahead of him on the depth chart. But he offers an element not commonly found elsewhere.

The 2021 second-round draft pick is already one of the biggest players on the team at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. And in the games he played at Florida and Tampa, he displayed an ability to control the play down low, win battles along the boards and assert himself when presented with an opening in the offensive zone.

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There’s a clear upside there as long as head coach Sheldon Keefe can find the trust needed to give Knies shifts against much more experienced opponents inside the playoff pressure-cooker.

That helps explain why the Leafs have been willing to play roulette with their backup goaltenders in the final days of the season.

“It’s been pretty impressive the level of big games he’s played in,” Dubas said of Knies. “But that said, Sheldon’s never coached him, our staff has never coached him and we just viewed it as important that he’s got these games.”

Despite registering three straight wins, it’s hardly been a smooth stretch for the Leafs.

They had purposefully set aside the room needed to sign Knies once his NCAA campaign ended, only to see those plans complicated when Matt Murray suffered a concussion earlier this month.

Toronto initially replaced Murray with goaltender Joseph Woll. Then the Leafs sent Woll back to the American Hockey League ahead of Saturday’s game against Montreal and signed Alexander to an amateur tryout deal to back up Ilya Samsonov.

That was done in concert with briefly recalling veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to play against the Habs and then returning him to the AHL on Sunday in order to free up the cap space needed to sign Knies.

While teams are permitted to use a roster exception and call up a player who doesn’t count against the salary cap once they’ve played short in a game, the NHL didn’t view Saturday’s circumstances in Toronto as satisfying the criteria because the Leafs essentially created the “emergency” on their own by choosing to carry one healthy NHL goalie on the roster when they could have found room elsewhere to keep Woll up.

It was only after they played Monday in Florida with Chenard backing up Samsonov that the NHL eventually relented and granted the Leafs the ability to recall Woll under the zero-dollar exemption roughly six hours before he started against the Lightning.

“It’s been a little crazy,” Woll told reporters.

“There’ve been some difficult conversations [with the NHL] as we’ve kind of gone through,” Dubas said. “Our priorities right now are a little bit different than I think what theirs would be.”

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The Leafs' priorities have been getting to the playoffs as healthy as possible and making sure Knies got the chance to experience NHL action before the stakes get raised significantly.

Clearly they think there’s a possibility they’ll need him.

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