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No. 21 Nikita Okhotiuk: The defensive specialist the Sharks need

Despite being one of the least discussed players out of the Timo Meier trade, Nikita Okhotiuk already made his NHL debut two seasons ago. A lot of attention has, justifiably, been on Shakir Mukhamadulin, Fabian Zetterlund, and the two top-round draft selections that came from New Jersey, but Okhotiuk is an interesting pick-up and well-worthy of a spot on our list.

The 22-year-old Russian defenseman has one year left on his entry-level contract and will seek to prove himself as a reliable defenseman to San Jose’s management.

Position: Defense
Height: 6-foot-1
Weight: 194 lbs.
Age: 22
Date of Birth: December 4, 2000
Draft Year: 2019, 61st overall by the Devils
Shoots: Left
2023-24 Team: San Jose Barracuda (AHL)

Unfortunately, Okhotiuk was unable to make his San Jose debut following the Meier deal due to a season-ending surgery. He last played for the AHL’s Utica Comets on February 11th. Sometimes, some extended time off to recover and retrain is helpful for skaters, but they might also need extra time to readjust to the speed and conditioning needed in the game.

All signs indicate that Okhotiuk appears ready to start the year with the Barracuda and push for NHL ice-time once October brings the 2023-24 season. As we mentioned in our discussion on Gawanke’s opportunities for ice time, young Okhotiuk will also be in the same battle for a limited number of spots on defense. It is likely that he will spend most of his year playing with the AHL’s Barracuda but will push for more NHL games later in the season or to fill in for injuries. As part of Mike Grier’s rebuild, the Sharks have been actively working to reshape the prospect pipeline on defense especially. Just a couple of years ago, only Ryan Merkley seemed the most eligible candidate to play in the NHL full-time; the Sharks now have a couple more. The more eligible prospects, the better.

Okhotiuk is known as a classic, physical defenseman with a defensive mindset. Soon after the Timo Meier trade, Grier called Okhotiuk a “throwback player,” harkening to his highly competitive and physical reputation. Growing up in Chelyabinsk, a city in Russia close to the Kazakh border, Okhotiuk made his way through the city’s youth hockey clubs, eventually playing for his hometown MHL team as a 16-year-old. The next year, he made his move to North America and has played here ever since. Okhotiuk played for three years in the OHL with the Ottawa 67’s and represented Team Russia in international junior hockey tournaments.

The then-rebuilding New Jersey Devils drafted Okhotiuk in the second round in 2019, following his second season in the OHL. New Jersey kept him in juniors for an additional season, then brought him up to make his professional hockey debut in 2020-21 with the Binghamton Devils before they relocated to Utica. Okhotiuk has played 111 AHL games in total at this point, scoring 24 points and recording 137 penalty minutes. This is plenty of blueline experience in professional North American hockey, and a prospect with higher experience is right in line with what Mike Grier seems to look for when acquiring young players.

What we like

Okhotiuk is defensively responsible and has over a hundred games of experience in the AHL. Defensemen tend to take longer than forwards to develop into NHL form. It’s possible that with the timeline to regain playoff competitiveness Grier and his team have for the Sharks, players like Gawanke and Okhotiuk, who already have progressed for several years in the AHL, will be ready to contribute in good form for a Sharks roster pushing for a Stanley Cup playoff berth.

Sharks fans understand the significance of a reliable defensive defenseman on the roster. The Vlasic-Braun pairing was a staple of consistency and reliability for many years, including during the team’s 2016 Stanley Cup Final run. A blend of physicality has also been a feature of many popular Sharks defensemen throughout the years, including Radim Šimek, Douglas Murray and Scott Hannan.

Perhaps Okhotiuk can fill this role with a raucous but responsible presence on the back end. Good defense is key to winning games consistently, and the Sharks have long needed a young player like Okhotiuk in their system.

Even if he does not play for the Sharks this season, he will be expected to help the Barracuda keep the puck out of the net with a large share of ice time. The Barracuda roster will feature several new faces this season, and it would be to everybody’s benefit if Barracuda could make the 2024 Calder Cup playoffs. Sharks management made a strong push to earn the Barracuda a playoff spot last year, but ultimately, the team missed out.

It is clear Mike Grier would like his prospects to have extra playoff hockey experience and to learn a winning culture in professional hockey. Okhotiuk, at the very least, should help in this regard.

Areas of improvement

Since making his move to North America, Okhotiuk has yet to become a consistent offensive threat. Nobody is expecting Okhotiuk to start scoring at a high level, but some additional progress in moving the puck, both through his passing and by skating it up, would only serve to help his utility.

Okhotiuk already has a certain “brand” for his defense. Some scouting reports have given him NHL bottom-pairing potential. This is still very valuable to a team, but if Okhotiuk can extend his skillset, perhaps he can still become a top 4 defenseman for the Sharks in the coming years.


Let’s throw it back to Nikita Okhotiuk’s NHL debut, where he also got his first NHL goal:

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