Artemi Kniazev has earned his rightful place as number 20 on our list for being a two-defenseman who’s strong on the forecheck, and could be (god-willing) the next Erik Karlsson.
Kniazev is on the younger side of the prospect pool, at just 21 years old. He made his professional debut this season, for the San Jose Barracuda, but the San Jose Sharks have had their eye on him since he was drafted by the franchise in the second round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, at 48th overall. He’s currently signed to an entry-level contract through to the 2023-24 season, which will give him and the organization plenty of time to ensure his continued progression within the system.
As a Russian-born player (from Kazan, Russia), Kniazev has spent the majority of his time with the AK Bars Kazan club and played for a variety of Russian minor/youth teams since the 2017-18 season. Kniazev made his North American debut in the 2018-19 season with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL, where he first flexed his offensive skill. In his first season in the West, Kniazev net 13 goals and 21 assists in 55 games.
The hype was high on Kniazev in 2019, and he continued his domination of the QMJHL in the 2019-20 season with 11 goals and 32 assists in 51 games.
When COVID disrupted 2020-21 season, Kniazev found his playing career disrupted, as well. He began the season on loan to the Bars Kazan of the VHL (five games), before playing for Irbis Kazan (two games) of the MHL. His brief stint back in Russia ended with the return of the QMJHL, and he played 14 games for the Sagueneens (netting 5 goals and 13 assists) before ending the year on the Russian U20 national team in the U20 World Junior Championships, playing seven games and netting 1 goal and 3 assists.
Bouncing from league to league (and continent to continent) is exhausting, and will do little for any players’ development, especially for such a young player who has yet to make sense of the Sharks’ systems. The 2020-21 season was essentially a loss of crucial time and energy, without the ability to adjust and settle into an organization or system.
It’s part of why it is so important that Kniazev has, so far, played the entirety of the 2021-22 season with the San Jose Barracuda. He was present at both the prospect camp and Rookie Tournament, and again for those first few days of training camp, but, like most young players, it was for the coaches to gain a more in-depth understanding of their prospects.
Kniazev did make his NHL debut earlier this season on Nov. 4, but his one-game appearance was more of a motivation factor and test of his current abilities rather than a real introduction to the big leagues. Instead, Kniazev has been a key piece on the Barracuda’s blueline.
The Barracuda are sitting at the bottom of the AHL standings, and for as much of a development team as it is, constantly losing can wear on a player mentally and physically, and result in some pretty ugly stats.
For all intents and purposes, this season is a make-up year for the younger players who missed out on a consistent year of hockey in the 2020 season, and with Kniazev’s own struggles this year, it’s clear that he needs it. There’s no great pressure or expectation for him to be ready to slot into the Sharks’ line-up. Kniazev has been having trouble returning to the offensively-minded ways of the past, but with a little more time, he should be able to bounce back to a 30-plus point season.
He has currently played 32 games for the Barracuda, tallying 1 goal, 6 assists, and 29 penalty minutes. In the past five games, Kniazev has 1 assist.
What We Like
We love the young defender’s ability to play both sides of the puck. The Sharks’ defensive depth isn’t shallow as it is one-note, and while there’s a slew of players waiting in the wings, most of the Sharks’ more NHL-ready prospects are forwards. In order to set himself apart from the crowd, Kniazev’s offensive nature and presence on the forecheck is a great way to do it. At both the AHL and NHL levels there are already players who can be physical or play back, but what they need is another Erik Karlsson.
If given ample opportunity to develop (and maybe be on a winning team), Kniazev could reach those same heights as Karlsson. He’s strong on the puck, has great passing instincts and strong skating skills, and is mobile and agile when needed. For a player who is clearly still in development, Kniazev has the makings of a true two-way defenseman, and that’s good news for the Sharks.
Areas of Improvement
If there are two things San Jose likes in their younger players, it’s good instincts and speed. Ironically, these are two areas that Kniazev needs to improve upon. It’s always a tight line between developing prospects too fast or too slow, and that line becomes even harder to walk with players who are still new to North American ice.
Kniazev has been back and forth between North America and Eastern Europe since 2018, but his professional career in the United States didn’t begin until this season, with the Barracuda. Kniazev needs more time spent in the AHL to develop a solid grasp of the Sharks’ systems and hone his defensive instincts. I might sound like a broken record when it comes to the younger of the Sharks’ prospects, but more time spent maturing physically, mentally and emotionally before being thrust into the limelight of the NHL is so important, especially for players like Kniazev, who has a high ceiling.
If given enough space and time to grow both sides of his game, Kniazev has the potential to be a top-four defenseman. It’s just a matter of playing enough games in the AHL to justify his NHL promotion. The Sharks certainly have their eye on Kniazev, evidenced by his one-game NHL debut for the team, but until he can maintain consistency in his two-way game and showcase in-game flexibility and strong instincts (so as not to crumble under the pressure of an NHL forecheck), Kniazev will spend his time putting in the work at the AHL level.
And then, there’s the speed. The Sharks are lacking speed overall, but particularly with their defenseman. As a bigger, but a younger player, if there’s one area Kniazev can work to endear himself to the Sharks’ coaches, it’d be with speed.
Rookie Artemi Kniazev makes his NHL debut tonight pic.twitter.com/wtyPUX18lI— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) November 5, 2021
Here’s our golden boy, making his NHL debut on Nov. 4, making him the 10th Sharks’ rookie to do so. It won’t be long (perhaps another year or two) before Kniazev is a regular in a Sharks jersey.