When Toronto used the last selection they had in the 2001 Entry Draft to select Mike Knoepfli from the OPJHL’s Georgetown Raiders most observers were divided equally into three groups: The ‘how do you spell it’s?’, the ‘how do you say it’s?’, and ‘the who the heck is he’s?’ (For the record it’s pronounced kuh-naw-flee). Granted the league in which the portsider played is not as visible and many will maintain not as competitive as the CHL, but there are many reasons to think the Leafs may have pulled a fast one on the rest of the league here.
Talking to Georgetown GM John (Jack) Moon, the one thing that comes through time and again is the fact that “Mike is an incredibly smart player”. While he has an array of tools at his disposal, it is the way he chooses to use them that is most impressive. In the passing game “he makes the smart, safe pass, but can also thread the needle when it’s there. His passes are very accurate, hard, and clean”. When in the corners “Mike possesses a variety of methods for winning battles and shifts easily from one to another. He can power over a player one time and finesse him the next. He has excellent footwork and 90% of the time will come away with the puck.”
However, as unselfish a player as Knoepfli might sound, his 45 goals in 47 games will attest that he is an established finisher both in close where he can use his 6’2″ 205 lb frame to his advantage or coming in from the wing. Moon points out that his charge “has an outstanding slapshot as well as a quick snapshot (and) will always go to the net on the rush.” Once there “his size and strength make him very difficult to move.” While like many big men, his straight ahead speed is not in the burner class, the Georgetown GM grades the rest of his skating skills as “excellent” and because of this his ability to deke and handle a puck on the move as “very good”.
When describing his game away from the puck, again his intelligence comes into play. “Mike is just a very smart player,” is the answer of the day when it comes to positioning himself on both offense and defense. He anticipates extremely well and can mark very effectively. As for belligerence, Moon states that Knoepfli is a “very hard hitter” and “plays aggressively, but doesn’t take many penalties (doing so).” Adversity brings out the best in the winger as he has “many game-winning goals” to his credit.
Who’s game does this sound like? If you said Brendan Shanahan, then you agreed with both this writer and the Georgetown GM. Another interesting similarity is the fact that like Shanny, Mike Knoepfli has been playing the point on the powerplay for the last three years. However, while Scotty Bowman has been heard to complain about his winger’s motivational problems in the past, Knoepfli has put on at least 10 pounds since draft day due to camping out in the weight room all summer. For now the ex-Raider will attend Cornell University and play for the Big Red. However, with those tools, that intelligence and a never say die attitude, don’t be surprised if the local boy makes good in the medium term.
Covering the Flanks
It’s not something that happens often, especially in today’s game where it is imperative that teams have defensemen who can jump up into the rush and act as a fourth forward. Nonetheless, taking a blueliner and converting him into a forward is something that has worked out pretty good in the past for Toronto. While the most recent example of this was the less than stellar experiment of moving Nathan Dempsey to the wing, it should also be noted that both Wendel Clark and Gary Leeman entered the Buds’ organization as rearguards and departed as wingers.
Clark as many people know was the definition of Maple Leaf hockey during his time here, especially his first two stints. Leeman, after a couple failed trials on the blueline, tallied 21, 30, 32, and 51 goals prior to being injured in 1990 and traded to Calgary in the Doug Gilmour deal in 1991. Now comes word that Ottawa 67 blueliner Jonathan Zion took a few minutes on the left side during the Leafs 7-2 Rookie Camp laugher over the New York Rangers. Deja vu all over again?
Compare: Clark, the #1 choice over-all in his draft year, put up 32 goals and 55 assists in 64 games with the Saskatoon Blades in his final year in the CHL. Leeman countered by lighting the lamp 24 times and adding 62 helpers in 63 games with the Regina Pats in his last WHL tour. Zion, threw up 22 goals and 51 assists in only 59 tilts during the 67’s 2000/2001 campaign. But there is more to it that simply production from the blueline. All three of these players were undersized with Zion being the heaviest at 200 pounds. While Clarke was never accused for not taking the body, physical play was never Leeman’s strong suit, much the same as it is a bugaboo for the Nepean, Ontario native.
Finally, there is the pipeline itself. A quick look around the middle and upper reaches of the system for born and bred snipers reveals Zion’s Ottawa teammate Miguel Delisle and…and… and… not a whole lot more. Jeff Farkas was drafted as a playmaking center and developed by the Leafs into his present role. Much the same will eventually happen with Brad Boyes, again, a natural pivot. Bottom line: Outside of a few European flyers like Vadim Sozinov and Ivan Kolozvary, with whom development or even signing is by no means certain, it doesn’t look good. Contrarily, the one area where the Leafs are incredibly thick with prospects on all levels is on the blueline. So why not see what Zion can do up front? If recent history is any guide, there is a 66% chance that the move will be successful.