March 31, 2014
TORONTO– It didn’t take very long for prospect Eric Knodel to notice the differences between NCAA hockey and the American Hockey League.
Knodel, who signed an entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs on Mar. 25, made his AHL debut with the Marlies on Saturday against the Iowa Wild after three seasons playing at the University of New Hampshire.
“It was more physical, little bit more tactical than I’m used to,” Knodel said post-game. “Hopefully it won’t be too hard of a transition (but) it was a good start.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything spectacular, make the safe plays. Just get comfortable before I try to do anything special. Just trying to learn systems, each guy what they do out there. How coach Spott coaches this team, just trying to take it all in.”
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound defenceman was put in a familiar situation by head coach Steve Spott in his first pro game, pairing him alongside fellow prospect Stuart Percy.
Percy, who has been a main stay on the Marlies blue line all season, played with Knodel at Leaf prospects camps in years past.
“He was great, very vocal in telling me what to do, keeping options open,” Knodel said about playing with Percy.
“Just safe,” Spott added when asked why he placed the two rookies together. “I think Stuart Percy is a very calming influence and can teach.”
Knodel showed signs of nerves early in the contest and was caught second guessing if he should pinch on the blue line in the first period, which led to a breakaway and scoring chance for the Wild that goaltender Garret Sparks turned away.
After that, however, he settled down and played effectively the rest of the way, being used strictly in 5-on-5 situations.
“Efficient,” was how Spott described the 23-year-old’s debut. “We see the size and good use of his stick. We’ll continue to work with him, there’s a real nice ceiling and upside to his game.”
Despite being a monster on skates, Knodel isn’t a bruiser and plays more of an offensive game.
As captain at New Hampshire, the West Chester, Pa. native produced 17 goals and 49 points in 79 games over his last two seasons.
“I think I can bring a good offence, good shot from the point,” said the left-handed Knodel, who admitted he hasn’t had his shot timed in years. “Every so often I can get in the rush and make some opportunities happen.”
Knodel was expected to dress Sunday against the Abbotsford Heat but was a late scratch after coming down with the flu.
The Marlies have nine regular-season games remaining and can clinch their third straight North Division title with one more win or a Rochester loss. Knodel will see more games before the playoffs start. How many, though, is yet to be determined.
“We’ll rotate in and out as we go,” said Spott, who has relied on the same six defenceman since John-Michael Liles was traded. “How much he plays down the stretch will depend on the standings.”
Recent injuries to Korbinian Holzer and Andrew MacWilliam could help Knodel into the lineup, depending on the length of time the two blue liners will be out of action. According to Spott, Holzer missed the past two games for “maintenance” but isn’t serious. And MacWilliam left Sunday’s game against the Heat with a potential concussion after hitting his head on the ice.
“I can’t call it an upper-body (injury), the replay tells the story,” said Spott regarding MacWilliam leaving the game and not returning.
Even if the 128th overall pick from 2009 doesn’t see much game action, he will be practicing with the Marlies on a daily basis. His belief is anything he grasps now will only benefit his future with the Maple Leafs organization.
“My goal is to grow as much as I can out there, try to learn the game and how it’s played, what I need to get ready for next year.”
Knodel’s entry-level contract doesn’t officially kick in until next season. He is currently on an Amateur Try-out deal with the Marlies.