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Top 25 Sharks Under 25: No. 7 Nikolai Knyzhov has big summer ahead

A sports hernia kept the defender out all season — will he be ready for 2022-23?

Nikolai Knyzhov #71 of the San Jose Sharks takes a shot on goal against the Arizona Coyotes at SAP Center on May 8, 2021 in San Jose, California. Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

Nikolai Knyzhov took the world by surprise when he cracked the San Jose Sharks’ 2021 opening-night roster. It was the NHL’s first ‘pandemic season,’ featuring taxi squads and a shortened 56-game regular season.

In January, the Sharks were in Arizona, gearing up for the season after a training camp that highlighted the predicted transcendence of young players like John Leonard, Jacob Middleton and Ryan Merkley. Merkley, by the way, did not debut in 2020-21, rather, the defender found his NHL legs this past season. Middleton was favored at the time to slate in as the sixth defender, but played in just one game for the big club in lieu of an injured Radim Simek, before being sent down to the Barracuda for the remainder of the season.

The fact that when Simek came back, it was Knyzhov, the undrafted Russian national, who ended up playing the length of the 56-game season — most of those games as a second- or first-pair defenseman — is a statement to the foresight of head coach Bob Boughner.

“Unbelievable feet,” was how Boughner described Knyzhov ahead of the culminating scrimmage of that year’s training camp. With virtually no footage of the goings-on of camp during a pandemic year, everyone, myself included, was flummoxed at the news of an undrafted defenseman earning the praise of a coach who seemingly wasn’t as interested in the performance of the highly-touted 2018 first-round pick, or any other defensive prospects for the matter.

Knyzhov had already made his NHL debut in 2019 and was paired with Nicolas Meloche for the majority of camp up until that point, hardly a frontrunner on the defensive depth-chart. But by the end of camp, Knyzhov had moved alongside Middleton on Team Teal, to face off against Mario Ferraro, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the opposing Team White.

‘Slim odds,’ one might have said.

Well, as it turned out, Knyzhov posted an unassisted goal by the end of the night in a 7-1 Team Teal win, probably rectifying his opening-night audition. Eventually, Knyzhov further proved his prowess through the season, as he climbed higher to a regular pairing with consummate-professional, Karlsson, instantly becoming a fan-favorite.

Through 56 games, what Boughner saw in Knyzhov became clearer during those few weeks of camp. Now, we’re looking back at a breakout season that tendered a team-third 84 hits and 54 blocked shots, tied for fifth.

With 10 total points that season, he isn’t exactly the dynamic, offensive hybrid like Cale Makar or Adam Fox that have broken into the league over the last several years. Still, comparing his 2021 season to those of the Sharks’ most recent breakout candidates, I’d say he still hasn’t been too-far displaced on depth: Middleton netted nine points in 45 games with the Sharks, while Merkley posted six in 39 in 2021-22.

Unfortunately, the biggest news surrounding the 24-year-old is that he didn’t play at all the following season, due to a nagging lower-body situation that only got worse, not better, dating back roughly to the second-half of the 2021 season.

That means he was playing the tail-end of the season while injured. Perhaps his two goals and eight assists could have ballooned to a greater figure with more favorable health. And now that Merkley, Jaycob Megna and other young defenders have made names for themselves on the blue line , Knyzhov’s role with the club isn’t as clear-cut.

His recovery was just as muddled. He suffered a sports hernia sometime in the waning months of the 2021 season. He was evaluated in the off-season, and on Oct. 12, 2021, it was projected that he would initially have an eight- to ten-week recovery.

After missing training camp for the 2021-22 season, it was reported that his rehabilitation was unsuccessful, leading to a surgery that was scheduled sometime between October and November 2021. A groin infection that followed complicated his recovery and set him back an additional estimated 12 weeks, preventing him from making a 2022 season debut.

Instead, he became a scholar of the game, as he analyzed from the sidelines, focused training mostly on his upper-body in the weight room and tried to look at the positives. But even through a year off-ice, his healthy season was impressive enough that the Sharks organization extended the then-pending restricted free agent’s contract, with an anticipated return in 2022-23.

With that, Karlsson’s partner-en-protégé may yet prove to be a part of the Sharks’ future plans, possibly playing behind William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau in the coming years. It will be an especially trying season, specifically for the blue line to remain healthy after injuries to Ferraro and Karlsson, notwithstanding Knyzhov’s situation.

The latest we’ve seen of Knyzhov was on locker clean out day, a month ago, when he reported that at the advisement of doctors, and with the continued support of trainer, Ray Tufts, he would be monitoring his health in San Jose before making a decision at the end of May to start training in Scottsdale, AZ to get ready for camp.

Arizona is where Knyzhov played American amateur hockey for the Phoenix Firebirds in 2013-14 and the Jr. Coyotes in 2014-15, before finding his way to the Western Hockey League (WHL). Scottsdale is a popular destination for players during off-season training, with others like Auston Matthews making the trip annually. It hasn’t been confirmed whether or not he made it to Scottsdale, though at the time, Knyzhov was positive about following the plan in order to be ready for camp, regardless of some cautious parallels between this year and 2021.

“Yeah. Projection is there. [Laughing] They had the same projection exactly a year ago in May. There’s just hope. I hope I’m ready at this point. I don’t want to say that I will be and that it will happen. But, as of now, I feel like it will and I feel great right now.”

He has reason to believe. After all, he’s had a long road to the NHL ... one that was unconventional, arguably improbable, which makes his ascent all the more impressive.

After playing 19 games of junior hockey with the WHL’s Regina Pats, he played 21 games in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) to round out his 2015-16 season. Whereas the WHL is one of the major components of the top-tier junior enterprise, Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the NAHL is a cut below the American, junior-alternative United States Hockey League (USHL).

Knyzhov then earned a chance to play in his home country, transferring to the tier-III MHL, or Russia’s Junior hockey league. From 2017 to 2018, he worked his way through the Russian men’s system, graduating from the MHL to the VHL, or Russia’s second-tier men’s league (similar to the AHL). Within this time, he was selected to represent Russia in the World Juniors Championship.

In 2018-19, he earned another call up, this time to the premier Russian league, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), for the same organization, SKA St. Petersburg. Through three games, he earned the attention of the Sharks organization, signing an entry-level contract as a free agent on July 2, 2019.

What We Like

In his journey through three junior leagues, international play, and three countries playing hockey, Knyzhov had never reached double-digit point totals on the season (he eventually earned 10 points with the Sharks in 2020-21), but at the time of signing, then-general manager Doug Wilson offered what he saw in Knyzhov:

“Knyzhov is a young, skilled defenseman who represented Russia at the World Juniors and made several improvements in his game throughout the season to make it onto his KHL team.

“He’s a smooth skater who can use his speed and physicality to disrupt the opposition.”

With both Boughner’s analysis at the relatively small sample-size, and Wilson’s prophetic vision of an ever-improving player, we can’t help but feel hopeful that it’s only scratching the surface in seeing Knyzhov’s highest potential ... and 10 points a season leaves a lot room to move upward.

He’s no Cale Makar, but unbelievable feet are half of the equation. If he’s learned a lot through watching 82 games on the sidelines, and can marry that knowledge to his physical abilities in a replicable way, he may become a more interesting player in his own right.

Areas of Improvement

There’s not much you can fairly critique of Sharks players in 2020-21, but with new blood in the mix on the blue line, Knyzhov will have to improve from his first two seasons of play, if only to stand out.

He has to be versatile. Playing with Erik Karlsson, a lot of the job is unlocking Karlsson. But Karlsson’s numbers in the season he prolifically paired with Knyzhov, are low: 22 points through 52 games. Yet, this past season, he had 35 through 50 games, playing with Megna, Middleton and others.

Highlight

More of this, please.

The offense Knyzhov did bring in the 2020-21 was generated from his designated area in the offensive zone: the left point. Here, he mixes it up and activates from that spot, resulting in his first NHL goal. If folks ask you what hockey IQ actually means, point to this one. I’m guessing he’s thought of this particular play more than once and will use it more in his return.