A 20-month process that has included multiple surgeries, stalled recoveries, and painstaking rehabilitations appears to be nearing an end for San Jose Sharks defenseman Nikolai Knyzhov.
Knyzhov, who hasn’t played a game since May 2021 due to a variety of injuries and setbacks, has been a regular participant in Sharks practices this week, ramping up his conditioning as he once again gets used to the NHL’s pace of play.
Knyzhov, after a harrowing year, was training in August for the start of this season when he tore his right Achilles tendon and needed surgery, with an estimated recovery time of about six months.
While the Sharks are still preaching caution, with no need to rush Knyzhov back with the team well out of the playoff race, all signs point to the Russian-born blueliner beating that initial timeline.
“I’m happy to be where I am, being ahead of schedule,” Knyzhov said earlier this week. “Skating with the guys, keeping up to speed, getting into little battles. It’s been fun.”
In his one full NHL season in 2020-2021, Knyzhov, a left shot, played in all 56 games, averaging close to 17 minutes of ice time per night as he quickly earned favor with the Sharks’ former coaching staff.
The Sharks’ current staff has also been pleased with what they’ve seen recently from Knyzhov in practice.
“You can see why our organization is very excited about him,” Sharks coach David Quinn said of Knyzhov, who went undrafted.
“Looking at him, he’s still a great skater, you can tell,” Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson said, “and he always will be.”
Knyzhov, 24, has been on a challenging journey, both mentally and physically, since he finished the 2020-2021 season as Karlsson’s defense partner and as the Sharks’ top rookie.
After the 2020-2021 season, Knyzhov had to bypass a chance to play for Russia at the 2021 World Championships as he needed sports hernia surgery on his left side.
After that procedure, an MRI revealed that Knyzhov also needed surgery to repair adductor muscles that had been torn off the bone, a chronic injury that he was told, “happened over time.”
Then another setback, one that required him to be on an antibiotic IV drip for weeks.
“I got back here two weeks after (surgery) and then felt like something wasn’t right,” Knyzhov said. “They found out that it was a bone infection, so I had to go back and get two more procedures done so they could clean it out.”
After Knyzhov recovered from the adductor surgery, it was determined that he needed sports hernia surgery on his right side. Unfortunately, once that healed, he endured another major setback with a torn Achilles tendon as he was training.
“So this was hopefully the last procedure,” Knyzhov said. “Really not looking forward to being in a hospital bed again.”
Knyzhov credited Karlsson for giving him some guidance during the latest rehabilitation process.
In Feb. 2013, Karlsson, then with the Ottawa Senators, had 70 percent of his left Achilles tendon sliced in a collision with former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke, who made contact with the back of Karlsson’s lower left leg with his skate.
“Whenever he’s at a stage in his recovery, he likes to ask me how I felt, how I feel, what I did,” Karlsson said of Knyzhov. “He’s doing a good job pushing his limits and his boundaries and at the same time being smart about it. There are certain things you can’t rush.
“He’s never going to feel the way that he did before, but that’s just with any kind of injury. You just have to adapt and eventually you’re going to get used to it where you don’t even think about it anymore.”
Karlsson was able to return after 10 weeks, but Knyzhov has had to be more patient in his recovery. Knyzhov skated for the first time since his Achilles tear in early November, and has made steady progress over the last two months.
Thursday, Knyzhov was on a defense pair with Nick Cicek, going through drills as continued to re-adjust to the tempo of NHL practices. He then traveled with the Sharks to Anaheim, as he continued to work with the team’s coaching staff.
“Every morning when I come to the rink (I wonder) what is it going to feel like when I get back on the ice, what it’s going to feel like to play with the guys,” Knyzhov said. “But once you put the gear on and I’m out there, just getting the feel of being with the guys, joking around, battling, it just feels like I haven’t missed a day.”
The next step for Knyzhov, listed at 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, is to get into some contact practices with the Sharks, see how his body reacts to that, and then potentially be reassigned to the Barracuda to play AHL games.
Knyzhov’s last professional game was May 12, 2021, so it likely won’t be a quick stint with the Sharks’ top minor league affiliate.
“You look at him, and he could help us in the future,” Quinn said without equivocation. “But I haven’t thought about, ‘where do I put him’ or ‘when might it happen.’ I literally haven’t let myself get there.
“He’s got some work to do and he’s got a lot of rust to get off, missing as much as he has.”
“For me, any game experience is going to be good for me, whether it’s here, it’s in practice, or it’s with the Barracuda,” Knyzhov said. “But the way I look at the Barracuda. it’s not just going there to practice. If f I’m going there, I’m going to play and I’ve got to be 100 percent.”