He may be the youngest player playing in the CCHA this season and the youngest to have ever donned the jersey of the University of Alaska Nanooks, but Dion Knelsen is a player whose maturity and approach to the game far exceeds his tender age. The Three Hills, AB native just turned 18 on Jan. 4.
“The biggest thing about Dion is that he came in as a 17-year-old, so I have to stop and remind myself of that sometimes,” said University of Alaska head coach Tavis MacMillan in a December interview with Hockey’s Future. “Maturity-wise, Dion is way beyond his years. On the ice, off the ice and in the classroom, this kid has been special. There are very few student-athletes in college athletics as gifted as Dion is.”
Knelsen came to the University of Alaska from the AJHL’s Drumheller Dragons, where he posted 74 points (39 goals, 35 assists) in 60 games in 2005-06. In his only season with the Dragons, Knelsen was named to the South Division Team at the 2006 AJHL All-Star game. He concluded the season with being named Drumheller’s Rookie of the Year and was selected to the AJHL All-Rookie Team. Knelsen was also runner-up for the AJHL Rookie of the Year.
In 2004, Knelsen was selected 73rd overall (fourth round) by the Portland Winter Hawks in the WHL Bantam Draft. He had originally intended to go the Major Junior route, but that would all change thanks in part to two of his current coaches.
“Originally, I was completely committed to going to Portland, even by the spring prior to my 16th birthday. I went to their rookie and main camps,” Knelsen told Hockey’s Future in a recent interview. “Then I got a call from Coach (Wade) Klippenstein, who said that they just wanted to talk to me. Eventually, he and Coach Mac (MacMillan) came to my house and they had a meeting with my family. They explained the program and just kind of opened my eyes to the whole college league, the University of Alaska program and the whole excitement of it all. Up until then, I had been pretty ignorant about all of it. I had known that there was ‘the Dub’ (WHL) and that was it. I realized that college was a better fit for me and that’s why I decided to go that route.”
The University of Alaska wasn’t the only NCAA team that actively recruited Knelsen. He also garnered considerable interest from other schools including Colgate, Colorado College, Minnesota State-Mankato, New Hampshire and Princeton.
One of the main reasons Knelsen chose to go to the University of Alaska was because of his older brother Brandon. Interestingly, the elder Knelsen, who is a year and a half older, is also a freshman at the University of Alaska this season.
“The two main factors for me going to Alaska were, first of all the coaches turned me away from the Dub and really attracted me to their program, and second because they also went after my brother too. So that was a huge reason in getting me to go to Alaska,” said the younger Knelsen.
Dion Knelsen isn’t your average rookie playmaking center. While he possesses some outstanding skills, it is the mental and visual sides of his game that are perhaps his most impressive attributes.
Knelsen is an immensely smart player that sees, thinks and understands the game very well. He is meticulous in his attention to detail and can read the opposition like a book. However, what separates Knelsen from so many other players in collegiate hockey is how well he knows the players he plays with and against, such as whether the player is right-handed or left-handed. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that Knelsen is able to take that knowledge and use it to his benefit.
“He’s a very, very intelligent player. He watches the finer points and the details of the game. You can talk to him as a coach about coaching things because he understands the game that well and sees the game that well,“ said MacMillan.
One asset that immediately stands out are his superb hands. He has great poise and patience with the puck and can make some beautiful tape-to-tape passes. He moves extremely well with the puck and rarely does he make bad decisions with it. Knelsen is a player who battles equally as hard to get the puck as he does to maintain possession of it. He has a quick release to his shots and is blessed with a very good wrist shot. However, Knelsen is quick to point out that his shot is one area he would like to significantly improve.
“My wrist shot has always been a huge asset to my game but I haven’t used it much this year. I won’t say that I have a great wrist shot but throughout my whole playing career I’ve always had an above average wrist shot. My shot and my shot effectiveness are the biggest areas that I need to improve on right now. If I can start utilizing my shot a lot more, maybe we’ll be more successful.”
“Dion is able to do everything with two hands on his stick. If he does beat a guy and is able to separate himself, he can make a play right away. He doesn’t have to bring another hand to his stick. He’s always got two hands on his stick,“ said MacMillan.
At 5’9, Knelsen is small in stature, and while the lack of height may be a hindrance to many young players, it is actually an attribute that Knelsen utilizes quite effectively and advantageously. His low center of gravity combined with his quickness and mobility allows him to move efficiently through traffic, often making him a difficult player to contain.
“Being a smaller player you can’t just power your way through everyone,” said Knelsen. “I have to keep my feet moving and keep the defensemen guessing as to where I’m going to go. I can use that to my advantage because a lot of the time I can move my feet faster than they can.”
Knelsen’s on-ice vision is another area that makes him such a special player. As good as his sense of awareness is, his ability to exploit open spaces is even better. If he can’t find it, then chances are he’s creating it, whether it’s a passing lane, shooting lane or merely opening up a patch of ice with which a teammate can position himself in.
“There are several guys that I pattern my style after," said Knelsen. "One guy that I look at is Joe Sakic. He is able to be shifty and who is able to create so much offense, despite the fact that he’s only something like 5’10. Another player I look at is Pavol Datsyuk. He’s kind of a role model as well because he has that ability to combine the use of his hands with his overall playmaking ability to create lots of offense. I really like their styles of play, especially since they’re two smaller players.”
So how does Dion Knelsen describe himself?
“I would describe myself as a playmaker but at the same time it’s often my role to have to put the puck in the net. I guess my playmaking is probably my greatest asset right now, along with my vision and my mobility. I’m a player who likes the corners and I think I have above average speed. I work hard and just try to win my battles. I have my role to produce offense and create scoring chances. Honestly, I need to get a lot better than where I am at right now.”
Like all other young players coming into the collegiate ranks who aspire to play at the professional level, Knelsen’s continued size and strength development along with fine-tuning his skills will be essential to his future success.
At the University of Alaska
Knelsen currently centers the Nanooks “kid” line, playing alongside his brother Brandon and fellow freshman Jeff Lee. He has played in 20 games (through Jan. 20) and leads the team in rookie scoring with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists). Of his five goals, three have come on the power play. Earlier in the season, he missed four games due to a shoulder injury.
Knelsen’s most memorable game came on Oct. 14 when he registered five points (two goals, three assists) in Alaska’s 8-4 win over Air Force. The points were the first (non-exhibition points) of his career and earned him his first (and thus far only) CCHA Rookie of the Week honor.
As with all players new to the college game, Knelsen has had to adjust and adapt to many things, not the least of which is going up against bigger and stronger players. Playing on one of the NCAA’s biggest teams up in Fairbanks has allowed Knelsen to make that adjustment relatively quickly.
“In practice drills I’m going up against some really big guys so it definitely seasons you to that aspect of the game when you do have to play against bigger players. When you go up against teams who have players that aren’t as big as your team, then you’re that much more ready for it,” said Knelsen.
Playing for the University of Alaska has afforded Knelsen many things, including lots of ice time and playing for a coach who can be as demanding of him as he can be of himself.
“I have to say that I’ve been very fortunate that Coach Mac has given me the opportunities to play that I have been given. He doesn’t have me sitting on the bench most of the time because of my age,” Knelsen said of playing for MacMillan. “He expects a lot out of you. He pushes you every single day. So far it’s been good because he doesn’t let you get into a comfort zone. You have to improve. He’s tough and I like that because I like playing under a coach like that. I like playing for a coach who is demanding in that way.”
Knelsen’s excellent skill set is matched only by his humility and work ethic. They are characteristics that aid in not only keeping things in perspective but keeping him grounded as well. One of the things that Knelsen constantly strives towards is finding better and more creative ways to improve the various elements of his game. That, and his unrelenting pursuit of becoming the best player that he can be are qualities that MacMillan admires and respects about his young rookie sensation.
“I’ve always said that there are so many great players out there but it’s the mentally tough ones — the ones that want it, that are goal-oriented, and that understand not just the end result but also the process that it takes to get there — that succeed. Dion wants it and he knows how to get there. He will make it because he wants it, he knows how to get there and all he needs is opportunity and we’ve given him that.”
Outlook for the Draft
On the NHL Central Scouting’s “Players to Watch” listing, Dion Knelsen is one of four collegians listed as an “A” player, meaning that he is one of the top players eligible for the 2007 draft. Initial reports on when Knelsen could potentially be chosen vary widely. Some are speculating that he could be taken as early as the latter half of the first round, while others are projecting him to go as late as the fifth round. When the Mid-Term rankings were released earlier this month, Knelsen was listed under the “Limited Viewing” category.
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