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Why Sharks Have So Much Faith in Knyzhov, What He Means to Training Staff



Credit: AP Photo/Josie Lepe

Nikolai Knyzhov has played just nine NHL games over the last two seasons, but that didn’t keep Mike Grier from signing the pending RFA, not just to a one-year, but a two-year contract last month.

The GM’s commitment to the 25-year-old defenseman wouldn’t be surprising, however, if you knew how committed he was to returning to the NHL after 20 months away because of a seemingly endless series of injuries, from hernia surgery, an infection from that surgery, groin surgery, and a torn Achilles.

Before the injuries, the San Jose Sharks’ 2020-21 Rookie of the Year’s last NHL game was Apr. 12, 2021. 663 days later, on Mar. 6 in Winnipeg, he was back in the best league in the world.

“Mike Grier started the conversation,” Knyzhov’s agent Dan Milstein told San Jose Hockey Now, of the two-year, $2.5 million one-way pact. “The team made it very clear they wanted Nikolai back.”

So just what makes Knyzhov a little bit different than your average athlete who’s underwent multiple traumatic injuries?

Sharks Locker Room: Knyzhov ‘Had A Lot of Emotions’ in Return to NHL

“He knew more about his injury than I did, at one point,” Sharks strength and conditioning director Stephen DiLustro laughed. “I wish everybody could have seen his days, and how much work he put in, and how much of his own research he did.”

This was after Knyzhov’s Achilles tear this past summer.

“We talked a little bit about it, the night [the Achilles injury] happened. He’s like, I read this article. How they had this study in mice with Achilles and these are the steps they took, these mice who went through this intervention and recovered this much faster than this one,” DiLustro recalled. “He had that paper [researched] before I even really knew what was going on.”

So you know Knyzhov, who was returned to the San Jose Barracuda on Mar. 25, is serious when he says that he has a lot of ideas about how to get better this summer.

“I don’t really have an execution plan just yet,” the young defenseman acknowledged. “But learning things about my body over two years, I definitely want to switch up the workout patterns a little bit, want to get a little more flexible, want to make sure that all my tendons are strong, that I’m good with my own body weight. That I’m aware of everything, get all the right mobility, just basically get my body in the best shape as it could be.

“It’s not necessarily like strength and gaining like crazy pounds and lifting heavy weights, maybe more of like balancing and getting the neurology dialed in, just these kinds of things that I had no idea about until all of this stuff happened.

“I’m not saying I’m gonna get lighter, I’m not saying I’m gonna be heavier, that’s not the goal, the goal is just to get better, get faster and get more flexible and in touch with my body.”

The San Jose Sharks, fair to say, aren’t betting on what Knyzhov is now, but what he can still become.

He’s a 6-foot-3, 222-pound defender who hasn’t lost his trademark mobility, despite the injuries.

“I think the good news for us is that that injury didn’t affect his skating,” San Jose Sharks head coach David Quinn said. “He skates at an NHL level.”

In fact, his skating might be better than ever.

“I already feel better with my mobility. I lost a little bit of strength here and there over two years,” Knyzhov said. “But I gained mobility because I was already working on stretching and working on some other things that would help me skate better, improve my stride, little things.”

As noted, he’s a player that will turn over every stone to get better.

“I try to talk to everyone, if there’s something interesting to me, I’ll go and I’ll ask, I’m not afraid to show that I don’t know something. But I want to learn,” Knyzhov mentioned.

Brent Burns about his groin injury. Erik Karlsson about his Achilles tear. Former Sharks strength and conditioning director Mike Potenza, now with the Golden State Warriors, about Klay Thompson’s comeback from an Achilles tear. Other current Sharks like Nico Sturm.

“Now, you probably look at Sturmey, the guy’s a beast,” Knyzhov observed. “But besides that, he’s probably the most flexible guy on the team.”

Knyzhov now has some peace of mind to go along with his talent and off-the-charts drive.

“I think one of the things with Nikolai is that he’s so hard on himself, and sometimes, when he doesn’t have a great shift that compounds itself, and it turns into two or three tough shifts just because you care so much,” Quinn pointed out after Knyzhov was sent down. “He lets one mistake turn into three or four, and that’s part of learning, that’s part of growth.”

Knyzhov agreed, but also shared the gamut of what was going through his head during his recent NHL stint.

“When you have like what, 14, 15 games left in the season, you missed two years, and you don’t know whether you’re going to have a job next year, it’s tough, of course. You start thinking about am I ready right now?” he acknowledged. “You make that mistake, and you’re like, damn, am I good? Am I good enough?

“Like did I make [the mistake] because it was something out of my control? Did I make it because it was just a bad decision?

“Every game, every shift, feels like it’s the most important shift, right? Make one little mistake where, in a [normal] season, I wouldn’t be worrying about it.

“So all these things just start piling up in your head. And it’s all because of this pressure situation, which is, it’s crazy. It’s nothing like I’ve experienced before.”

The San Jose Sharks’ faith in him will allow Knyzhov to concentrate solely on getting better.

“It’s nice for him, buy him some time to show that he can play in this league for the foreseeable future. Gives him some security,” Karlsson concurred. “He’s just going to need some time, I think to get acclimated to everything again, and get back into the swing of things. He was a young rookie when things kind of went sideways for him, so he hadn’t really had much time to establish himself.”

But now, Knyzhov will get that chance with the Sharks, and DiLustro, among others, couldn’t be any happier.

“Steve-O was almost bawling when I told him that I’m gonna stay here. That means so much to me. I think it means a lot to them too, starting with Mike Potenza and Steve-O and everybody else,” Knyzhov said. “I wasn’t the only one putting in the hard work. It’s all the people around, starting with doctors, therapists, and team staff, everybody that was on site, everybody helping me out day in and day out, like physically and mentally.”

“You see someone who played through a lot of pain, the end of that last year, and you just saw someone who’s so invested in his own self and the performance aspect of what we do with everything. It’s just hard not to be [emotional], you see how hard someone works,” DiLustro acknowledged. “You watch the whole process and the ups and downs that comes with it. To see him persevere, it was very emotionally rewarding.”

“Everything I went through, everything I’ve learned, there’s a lot to take away from it,” Knyzhov reflected. “There’s a lot to improve on.

“It’s just fun. To me, it’s fun. So I’m excited about it.”

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