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Leafs prospects Abruzzese, Knies signal Dubas's best playoff additions may come from within

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The Toronto Maple Leafs added Mark Giordano at the trade deadline, but their most impactful additions leading into the playoffs may come from within the organization.

The first example of said moves came last weekend, when Toronto GM Kyle Dubas inked Ivy League Player of the Year and Olympian Nick Abruzzese. Captaining Harvard, Abruzzese had 33 points in 28 games this season for the Crimson and also had four points in four games at the Beijing Olympics representing Team USA.

As current Toronto Marlies coach Greg Moore, who coached Abruzzese in the USHL, said “what separates him from everyone else is his brain.”

Nick Abruzzese signed with the Maple Leafs and could now prove a valuable addition come playoff time. (Getty)
Nick Abruzzese signed with the Maple Leafs and could now prove a valuable addition come playoff time. (Getty)

Abruzzese already thinks of the game at an elite level. He will add energy and an alternative scoring option, perhaps to play alongside another elite on-ice thinker like William Nylander. If nothing else, he will provide competition as a Black Ace in the playoffs, and can step in if injuries arise.

Toronto, however, has always had an abundance of skilled, cerebral forwards. Yet, though the group can dazzle with the puck, it can somehow still lose crucial games.

Dubas attempted to address Toronto’s lack of size and physicality at forward by bringing in Wayne Simmonds and Nick Ritchie. Ritchie was not a fit and is now a member of the Arizona Coyotes less than a season into his contract. Simmonds remains effective and has become a fan favourite.

Despite his success, however, Simmonds alone will not save the Leafs from another embarrassing playoff exit at the hands of a team better built to endure the grind of a postseason. This is especially true if Jake Muzzin does not return on Toronto’s blue line.

Although Dubas did not acquire this type of player at the trade deadline, he does have another option: add from within.

Drafted in the second round, 57th overall, in 2021, Matthew Knies has everything the Leafs need to bolster their bottom six. He is big, standing 6-3. He hits, drives to the slot, and protects the puck well. He wins battles. But perhaps the best trait the University of Minnesota star has demonstrated this year in the NCAA is his ability to repeatedly shift momentum with a single shift.

While the Leafs are filled with talent and experience, they lack an energy line, or player, with the ability to consistently shift or regain momentum. Knies could play this key role while also providing offensive contributions from the wing.

Knies had 31 points in 31 games this season with the University of Minnesota, scored in his only World Junior Championships game before the tournament was cancelled, and was bullish for Team USA at the Olympics. Watching Knies’s puck pursuit, willingness to be the first to a puck at any cost, and ability to win pucks along the wall will be enticing to Dubas. The Leafs’ GM has been in attendance to watch his prospect play multiple times in recent weeks.

Perhaps the lone concern for Dubas is rushing two more prospects in simultaneously. The team tried to bring Nick Robertson along for a playoff run in 2020, valuing his speed and energy as a depth option. In hindsight, the franchise and Robertson have suffered from that fast-tracking.

Dubas failed to solidify his goaltending at the deadline, and there are visible holes at multiple positions up and down his roster. With this, he is unlikely to delay the promotion of a player who can help the team's current playoff run, despite the risk. The fact that Dubas has yet to promote capable members of his AHL affiliate possibly speaks to his intention to bring Abruzzese, and perhaps Knies, into the fold immediately.

With one month left in the regular season, Toronto still has time to audition players. In a worst-case scenario, both Abruzzese and Knies will end up gaining playoff and professional experience as Black Aces for the Leafs, as they are ineligible to be loaned to the AHL's Marlies this season. Alternatively, if one or both add a new element to Toronto’s forward depth, it could be a crowning moment for Dubas and his team.

For a team that has failed to win a single playoff round since 2004, Dubas should be all-in with a win-now mentality. With his chance to add from outside gone, Abruzzese and Knies offer a unique opportunity to build a winning team in Toronto now, and in the future.

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