The San Jose Sharks announced they have signed defenseman Artemi Kniazev to a three-year entry-level contract (ELC) yesterday afternoon. Though the team officially refrains from announcing the financial details of player contracts, CapFriendly lists the cap hit at $809,167. Signing ELCs so quickly after the draft is fairly common practice for high draft picks, though first-round picks are typically those we see ink deals during their first summer with the organization.
Kniazev (also written Knyazev) will return to his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) team in Chicoutimi for the upcoming season. Sharks General Manager, Doug Wilson commended Kniazev’s “poise with the puck, intelligence, and high-end skating and edge work,” traits that made Doug Wilson Jr. and his draft team excited for the second-round pick just a few weeks ago at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
Wilson isn’t the first person to praise the defender’s mobility and puck skills. Will Scouching, an amateur draft analyst and the person with the highest grade on the defender, likes the fact “He’s an excellent skater with a really great ability to spot teammates and get them the puck in the offensive zone.”
David St. Louis at Habs Eye on the Prize has a more thorough breakdown of Kniazev’s ability. A TL;DR version of the report is that the defender “looks to break up play early by using his stick to cut off passing lanes,” is “an agile and quick skater” and a smart passer. The downside of Kniazev’s aggressive play is that he will often “overcommit on his check, or misses them, and renders himself late on assignments and in overall positioning.”
The zone entry and exit data shown in that scouting report illustrates a player who could work on his zone exits and transition passing, but who adds to his team’s offense with a high rate of expected primary assists (passes that lead to varying degrees of expected goals).
Jeremy Davis and JD Burke of NextGen Hockey’s player cohort success model gives Kniazev an 18 percent chance to make the NHL and a nine percent chance to become a top-four defender. Emmanuel Perry’s prospect model gives Kniazev a 23.8 percent chance of making the NHL and a projected wins above replacement (WAR) upside of -0.02 WAR per 82 NHL games based on his 2018-19 season. Though the negative sign in front of the WAR value may frighten some, the value equates to the 49th-best mark of all 2019 draft-age defenders, of which there were more than 1,000.
The fact the Sharks took Kniazev where they did while higher-ranked defenders were still on the board makes this pick a difficult one to get too excited about. Kniazev seems to possess a skillset similar to the one that made Ryan Merkley the Sharks’ first-round pick a year ago, even if he doesn’t have the same astronomical upside. Despite all this, the quick ELC turnaround suggests the team likes what they’ve seen so far from the defender and that he should be able to live up to the standards of a second-round pick.
We can follow Namita Nandakumar’s prospect timeline research to predict when we might see Kniazev in the NHL if things go according to plan. We can expect about 35 percent of defenders taken in the second round to play one season of 40 or more NHL games. About 82 percent of that 35 percent will take four or five seasons to reach that threshold, though the fact Kniazev is a Russian national gives him a slight edge over his North American counterparts.
Because he is a second-round pick, it is unlikely we see Kniazev’s first NHL game before the end of the 2021-22 season. If he hasn’t played in at least 10 NHL games by the end of the 2022-23 season, it’s unlikely he’ll reach that stage in his career.
Kniazev possesses the traits that make defenders successful in the modern NHL. He can move the puck, create scoring chances and do a good enough job in his own zone. While ELCs for high draft picks are normal, the fact Kniazev is a second-rounder receiving his first contract is encouraging during a time usually reserved for first-round talents.
It seems the defender has the talent to live up to his promising upside. If we see him anywhere near NHL ice during the next two seasons, it will be a strong sign he’s exceeding expectations of a second-round defenseman and on his way to reaching his potential.