It hasn’t been a fantastic year for any member of the San Jose Barracuda roster, and Artemi Kniazev knows it.
“It’s been a tough year,” Kniazev told San Jose Hockey Now. “Especially in the beginning. It’s a new level, a different speed, a different pace of the game. A lot of tough guys in the league, especially in our division.”
It’s also been an adjustment for the San Jose Sharks’ 2019 second-round pick, in his first pro year.
While Kniazev played in the QMJHL for three seasons, this is the first year he’s had the opportunity to play in a league that solely uses North American-sized ice as he played his North American junior hockey with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. The Saguenéens’ home arena, the Centre Georges-Vezina, features an Olympic-sized rink rather than the NHL standard.
However, the Saguenéens have the only international-sized ice in the CHL, so the team still plays on North American ice when on the road.
“We played on the big ice, but we didn’t really see the difference between home and road games. Before the road games, we would go to practice on our second rink, and it’s very small, even smaller than the normal North American rink, I would say,” Kniazev said. “I don’t know, I don’t have big problems going from small to big or other side.”
However, the Russian defenseman’s jump from junior to professional hockey had other challenges. Regarding that learning curve, Kniazev says he’s had the San Jose Barracuda’s support to adapt and improve his game throughout the season.
“Coaches helped me a lot during the first stretch of the season,” he said, “[and the] last couple months have been way better than it was.”
The offense-first blueliner, who piled up 29 goals and 66 assists over his 120-game QMJHL career, got off to a slow start in the AHL with just one goal and one assist in his first 24 games. Since Jan. 22, however, Kniazev has six goals and 18 assists in his last 33 contests.
Kniazev has been asked to step into a top-two role on this Barracuda team as the season has gone on. Head coach Roy Sommer says that while it is partially because of the number of guys the roster has lost, Kniazev has earned the responsibility.
“He was probably playing 10 or 11 minutes,” said Sommer on the defenseman’s ice time before Jaycob Megna, Nicolas Meloche, and Ryan Merkley were called up. “Now, he’s up to the mid-20’s.”
Of course, ice time alone isn’t enough to prepare someone for the NHL, but it allows the top San Jose Sharks prospect to show off his abilities more in every game.
“He’s still got a long ways to go before he’s going to be an NHL’er,” said Sommer, “but I think he’s trending in the right direction. He’s picking up points. He’s running our first power play, which has been pretty productive all season long.”
Kniazev says his most significant improvement has been that he has started to play with confidence this season, and Sommer agreed with the self-assessment: “I think he’s made big strides. He’s playing a lot more comfortable, playing with confidence right now.”
Now that he’s more confident in his abilities, Kniazev says he’s just going to play his game and contribute points where he can. However, he knows that there is still room for improvement.
“Now, it’s going better,” the 21-year-old said of his game. “I wouldn’t say that it’s very good, but it’s better.”
Sommer listed skating as Kniazev’s most obvious attribute, and added, “Where he’s really done a good job is through the neutral zone. Surfing across, which means killing the plays more forward. He probably is our best defenseman at doing that. He reads the ice, see the ice pretty well.”
But Sommer also shared what the young defenseman has to improve.
“I think he hangs on the pucks a little bit too long and gets himself in trouble,” the bench boss said. “Defensively, he’s gotta kill more plays. His stick has to get better. His decision making still isn’t there but he’s come a long way since the start of camp.”
Speaking of holding onto the puck a bit too long, Kniazev has been told to shoot the puck more.
“You won’t get goals without shots, so it’s an obvious thing,” he said. “Our power play coach wants us to shoot more [since] we have more space on the power play especially. That’s where the goals come from.”
Sommer stressed, however, that he has seen improvement on that front in Kniazev’s play: “I think he’s done a pretty good job at that, getting pucks through. At times, he was passing off when he had the lane to get the puck through the net. He has gotten better at that, getting past that first layer.”
Kniazev has one NHL game under his belt already. It came in early November when the San Jose Sharks had an unfortunate run of COVID cases. Though the experience was brief, it gave Kniazev a glimpse of just what he is working for every day.
“Every kid’s dream is to play a game in the Show, and it happened. Be around guys like Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and Tomáš Hertl,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, other guys had COVID in that time when I was up there, but still, those are top players of the league. It’s nice to see how they prepare for the game. How they practice every day. That was a great experience.”
As one might expect, Kniazev says it gave him even more of a desire to reach the NHL full-time:
“It makes you work harder every day in practice and in the game to get to that level.”
THE FUN STUFF
Best locker room DJ:
“I probably like Jake McGrew’s playlist most.”
What is McGrew playing?
“All the guys who are in charge for music, they play a lot of country, which I don’t like, but I can do nothing about that.”
He did go on to mention that he liked the rap that McGrew plays the most.
As for who has the worst music on the team? Kniazev says there aren’t many guys to choose from:
“We don’t really have a lot of DJs. Probably [Nick Cicek] and [Zach Gallant] left. Jake is the best. Cheech or Gally, one of them the worst.”
In case you were wondering, these are Kniazev’s three favorite songs:
In a bit of a twist, Kniazev didn’t provide his perfect pizza build. Why?
“I’m not a big fan of pizza, actually. I don’t eat it a lot. Very seldom.”
Go-to pre-game meal:
“Pasta or rice, and now I’m more with the seafood stuff like salmon or shrimp, stuff like that. I don’t really think of something special, just whatever I want.”
Ideal off-day activities:
“In the mornings, I usually call my parents or my girlfriend back home. It’s a perfect time for that because of the time difference, and then I take a nap. Have plans to go out with the boys, especially when we’ve had Russians on a team, or just stay home and watch a TV series. I watch Sharks games every time they’re playing—something like that, nothing special.”
Has he been teaching the guys any Russian?
“They all know bad words. They use bad Russian words even between each other for some reason, yeah. That is actually funny.”
If he could have a superpower, he’d want to be able to:
“Probably to move back in the time. Does that make sense? To go back in time and change it.”
Specifically, he meant he wanted to be able to rewind time in the moment, with the idea that using it in games would be very helpful.
“That is probably the place where I would use it the most.”
If he could play any other position, what would he pick?
“I wanted to be a goalie when I was a kid.”
Unfortunately, his youth coach put him at defense early on, and he never had the opportunity to put on the pads, so we’ll never know what could have been.
THREE TO GO
Winless in their last 12 outings, the Barracuda are looking to finish their last three games of the season on a positive note.
The San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate played their final game at the SAP Center on April 13, suffering a 6-3 loss to the Bakersfield Condors. Thomas Bordeleau made his pro debut and notched three assists. Lane Pederson, Jasper Weatherby, and Patrick Holway each scored.
In their final home game of the season, the Barracuda gave the fans at Sharks Ice a show, but ultimately fell 4-3 in overtime to the Abbotsford Canucks. Pederson opened the scoring, picking up both a power play and short-handed goal in the first period. Kyle Topping scored the goal that sent the game to OT and the Barracuda picked up their second point in 12 games.
Kniazev picked up an assist in both games.
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