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2020 NHL Draft Profile: Samuel Knazko, Slovakian defenseman

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How do you assess a young defenseman who has great offensive impact that doesn’t show up in points?

2020 IIHF World U20 Championship, quarter-finals: Canada vs Slovakia Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

In previous profiles of other 2020 NHL draft prospects, I’ve picked guys who I find interesting and who have different reasons that I think have made them “sleepers”. For reference, or if you wanted to read the other profiles, they are as follows:

Tristen Robins (profile here) — a historically small guy who was never given an opportunity to play in his team’s top 6 until this year, and lacked a long period of exposure.

William Villeneuve (profile here) — an awkward skating defenseman who still has strong agility and transition play whose rankings are hurt by ugly mechanics.

Veeti Miettinen (profile here) — a small Finnish winger who took an unusual development path that hurt his exposure, and whose birth month may be held against him.

Karri Aho (profile here) — is a very young Finnish defenseman who is a great skater, decent passer, and very effective defenseman whose youth and lack of exposure has him running under the radar as a later round pick.

Samuel Knazko is a defenseman from Slovakia who shares some superficial similarities with Karri Aho. They’re both similar in size, both left shot defensemen, both later birthdays (Knazko was born in August, Aho in September), and both played in Finland’s U20 junior league for most of the season.

However, as far as where they have their biggest impact on the game, they couldn’t be more different. Aho’s primary value has been shown to be almost entirely from his defense, despite not being your typical big, slow, bruising stay at home defender. Samuel Knazko, on the other hand, has some of the best overall offensive impacts among all draft eligible prospects playing in Finland.

His draft rankings seems to fall between the 3rd and 5th round, according to Colin Cudmore’s expected draft range that pulls rankings from 30+ major ranking outlets. The Toronto Maple Leafs just so happen to have two 4th round picks, and one 5th round pick. They could also wind up with more mid-round picks.

So who is Samuel Knazko, and would he be worth the shot in the fourth round by the Leafs if he’s still available?

Samuel Knazko’s Backstory

Knazko, as a late birthday defenseman from Slovakia, has two full seasons in Finland’s U20 league under his belt. That means he was competing against much older players as a 16 and 17 year old, all while adjusting to life outside of his home country. I don’t know how good his Finnish was like before that, but I assume it’s pretty good now.

As a 16 year old in Finland, Knazko was leaned heavily by his team and regularly logged 20+ minutes per game, including time on the powerplay. He also has a long history playing against much older competition for Team Slovakia in international play. He played for their U18 team at the Hlinka tournament twice, including as a 16 year old. He has played 64 total games for Team Slovakia in various international tournaments for their U18 and U20 teams the past two years, totaling 8 goals and 14 assists in those games against powerhouse teams like Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and so on.

As a 16 year old in Finland’s U20 league, he was 2nd on the team in points by defenseman with 2 goals and 15 assists in 49 games. The team leader in that category was FIVE years older, and managed 5 more points. This year, as a 17 year old he managed 7 goals and 21 assists in 48 games. This was good for 2nd on the team for points by a defenseman again, this time finishing 2nd place to a player only four years older than him.

Among U18 draft eligible defensemen in the league, Knazko tied for the most points with Joni Jurmo, who seems like a lock to be taken before the end of the second round. There was also talk that Knazko might have earned a promotion to the Liiga or at least the Mestis, but unlike Karri Aho he didn’t wind up getting that late season taste of men’s hockey — something he said in an interview that he really wanted to improve his game and increase his draft profile.

So, Knazko’s story is one of a young defender with an offensive profile that has consistently performed well against much older competition. And yet, he is not getting the same type of love from draft rankings as other young defensemen playing in the same level, such as Joni Jurmo or Eemil Viro. So what gives? Is there a big problem with Knazko’s game or is he another sleeper?

Samuel Knazko Scouting Report

Elite Skills: Skating & Passing

When I read scouting profiles on Knazko and watch highlights, there are two areas of his game that stand out of the most: his skating, and his playmaking. I’ve seen some dissenting views when it comes to how good a skater he is, but I’m wondering how many of the ones who rate him poorly saw him earlier in the season or who caught him on a bad day.

Here is a particularly in-depth profile of Knazko that is both very high on his skating, and showcases it with lots of video clips:

Prospect Report: Samuel Knazko by Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey

Knazko is an elite skater. He’s so quick and strong on his edges, which gives him the ability to change directions at will. Knazko utilizes *tons* of linear crossovers to gain speed, giving him a massive advantage when carrying the puck. He’s so dynamic because of this, and can make defense back down while gaining speed.

His lateral movement is some of the best among all draft eligibles. His feet move so quick when he walks the blue line, allowing him to evade checkers and keep pucks in consistently.

Here are some other profiles that single out his skating as a strength:

From Antti Wennström at Finn Prospects

He has some really quick feet – great first steps, good acceleration and the ability to change speed and directions. Add that to some good awareness and boldness to join the rush and change places on the different situations, he really seems like a top talent as a modern defenseman.

From Eugene Helfrick at The Hockey Writers:

The most important aspect of Knazko’s game is his skating ability, which is described by many to be among the best in the draft for a defenseman. This, combined with his great hockey instincts, allows him to stay a step ahead of the game and allows him to capitalize on a great pass or a smart shot on goal.

Skating is obviously very important. If I were to hazard a guess why some people aren’t as high on it, I would guess it’s because of his competition. His skating might look good in Finland’s junior hockey, but would it hold up against tougher competition in, say, the OHL or the Liiga? For what it’s worth my impression is that Knazko’s skating is at least very good even among other draft eligible prospects.

Here’s a clip showcasing both his effective edgework and elusiveness, but also his ability to handle the puck while with defenders on him.

Watching clips of him playing in international tournaments against other top players for Canada, Russia, etc is instructive. This is a bit of a grainy video, but you can see Knazko (the primary puck carrier in the clip and helpfully labeled) in a Slovakia vs Germany game, set up a beautiful goal.

I was able to watch some games of the 2020 World Junior Championship, with a 17 year old Samuel Knazko playing an average of 15:07 minutes per game — which was actually third most on the team for defensemen. The team as a whole did not do well. They had a 3-1 win over Kazakhstan but got blown out 8-1, 7-2, 6-2, and 6-1 by Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and Canada respectively.

What stood out to me about Knazko is that his skating does hold up, and he was able to make some very nice plays. But he did look like a 17 year old at times against tougher, more experienced competition.

Speaking of making nice plays, that’s the other thing that stands out most about Knazko, both in his scouting reports and in his highlights. Here’s what some scouts say:

From Marco Bombino at Finnish Jr Hockey:

Knazko is very poised with the puck and remains calm in the face of opposing pressure. He has a high-panic threshold and he plays fearlessly which enables him to make plays even under heavy forecheck pressure. He is not afraid to hold on to the puck and look for a good passing lane.

The other thing that stands out most is his passing game. He gives smart, productive passes and he has the ability to find the right passing option on the breakout. He can be relied upon to start offensive transitions and he can stretch the ice with sharp long passes.

From Samuel Tirpák at Dobber Prospects:

Kňažko is a smart offensive defenseman who likes to join the rush, skate with the puck and use his offensive skillset to set up plays for his teammates as well as quarterback a power play.

From Bill Plazcek at Draftsite.com:

Slovakian defender with excellent hands and puck-carrying skills. Likes to have the puck and handles it well even in heavily congested areas. Good with puck, on break-outs on the power play and with his passing attack to start zone entrances. Calm and mature feel to is game who plays in all situations.

This is a good highlight that showcases his skating combined with playmaking. In the clip, he is #20 in white — the defenseman who retrieves the puck, loses the forechecker and rushes it back up ice, then does a brilliant little give and go at the blueline to set up a teammate right in front for the goal.

And as a testament to his skill with puckhandling in tight, here is he pulling off the William Nylander goal on the powerplay like he’s a forward:

What the Analytics Say

I’ve been delving more into what little analytics are available for prospects, especially ones in junior European leagues. There isn’t much, and what’s done come from manual tracking efforts from people like Will Scouching (for general prospects) and Lassi Alanen (for Finland).

Looking at Knazko’s profile and comparing him to other draft eligible defensemen in the U20 league, he is one of the top blueliners for driving offense. Most of that seems to come from his passing and setting up dangerous scoring chances, which supports what some scouting reports say about him above.

On the other hand, he is very low when it comes to his own shot rates and shot contributions. He’s so good at playmaking though, that he still winds up rating as a top offensive driver even among forwards in the league. He is at or near the top for shot assists, medium and high danger scoring chances, passing efficiency, and zone exits. Here is a visualization from Lassi Alanen showing Knazko as one of the top overall contributors to scoring chances among defensemen:

Lassi Alanen’s tableu account

Looking at Will Scouching’s tracking data backs up the above. Knazko has one of the best boosts to his team’s offense when he’s on the ice among all draft eligible players in the league. Higher even than any forward in Finland’s U20 junior league, including Veeti Miettinen who had a historically great offensive season when he was the team’s whole offense.

Here is a great testament to his ability to set up a dangerous scoring chance. He is #20 in white who set up the goal with the cross ice pass. Watch how he sets that goal up: first, he receives the pass along the blueline, then immediately pushes forward with it, backing up the defenders. He hesitates and looks like he’s going to shoot from inside the faceoff circle, freezing the defender and goalie. Then he makes a quick move and fires a cross ice pass to a wide open teammate with a gaping net. The aggressive skating deeper into the offensive zone and the hesitation/fake shot is what opened up the passing lane and froze the goalie so he couldn’t react as quickly.

Why Isn’t Knazko Ranked Higher?

This is the question my profiles all come to. Why isn’t a prospect who seems to be very well liked by a lot of public scouting people, and who has these great offensive skills, ranked as low as the 5th round? Even people who really like him have him as a 2nd or 3rd round pick at best.

So here’s the thing about how prospects are ranked: almost all of them have significant flaws to their game, except a small handful at the top. The rest have some mix of issues with size, skating, skill, defense, attitude, consistency, whatever. That’s why you see the expected value of a draft pick drop off by quite a lot until it’s all roughly the same at some point around the end of the 1st round/start of the 2nd round. Between then and about the fourth round, there’s really no major difference in quality.

So, what that should tell you is that Knazko is more or less thought of to be roughly similar to guys like Joni Jurmo, or even William Villeneuve who I profiled before. The reasons why they’re ranked where they are is because of the concerns each specific ranker has with their overall game.

There are two other things I think hurts Knazko’s rankings. First, his international play. I watched some full games from the World Juniors or Hlinka tournament with Knazko, where he got some knocks for his tenative play and shaky defense. As I mentioned above, the whole team got shelled pretty much every game so no one looked very good. However, one scout I read noted both that he wasn’t as strong or assertive at the WJC but noted he was far better after returning to Finland. How well you perform on the international level does have an exaggerated effect on a prospect’s rankings, for good or ill. Watching those games I’m genuinely not sure how much of it was him being actually bad, and being on a bad team relative to the teams they played against. Either way, that didn’t help.

The other issue is that, while he is a leading defenseman among draft eligibles in his league, they don’t have eye-popping points. In the CHL, you have Drysdale and even Villeneuve at or over a point per game. In Sweden, Emil Andrae was just under a point per game. Knazko’s 0.58 PPG is good, but isn’t as good as a Antti Tuomisto, a 2nd round pick from Detroit who had a 0.78 PPG in his draft year. And yet, there are numerous problems relying too much on plain points to assess how good a prospect is.

Knazko is young, but has been able to hang around against bigger, older opposition for years now. Most draft eligible players do not make their country’s World Junior team, not unless you’re from a smaller, less powerhouse country like Slovakia. From what I’ve seen, he makes mistakes you would expect from a younger defensemen: lapses in defensive coverage, turning the puck over trying to make a flashy play, getting outmuscled by bigger opponents, and so on.

But he also makes brilliant plays you would not expect from most defensemen. More often than not, he actually makes those flashy plays work. He has tantalizing skill that hints at future growth. He may not be a Roman Polak in terms of trying to crush anyone who moves in his vicinity, but he won’t shy away from physical play either. His defense is not his calling card, but it’s not a huge weakness.

In fact, here’s what Alexander Taxman had to say about Knazko’s defense:

Knazko’s skating also gives him a huge advantage on defense. He’s able to keep gaps very tight, and can stay with the top opposing forwards. He breaks up a lot of plays with his stick before the puck even crosses his blue line. Other times, he’s able to cover for teammates for an extra second or two, because he knows how fast he can get back into the play. Knazko doesn’t throw a lot of big hits, but he’s very physical and will use his low center of gravity to win puck battles.

He is a net positive defensemen in his level. In that sense, he may remind you of one Jake Gardiner. Not that I am saying Knazko will be as good, but stylistically they share a similar profile: offensively minded, more a passer/playmaker than shooter or scorer, drives great overall results through offense but will likely catch some flack for the “mistakes” because he tries to do things with skill that few would try.

Where Should the Leafs Draft Him?

This is the golden question as far as we Leaf fans are concerned. What is the best area of the draft to try and draft him? He might not be quite good enough to take in the 2nd round, and as of now they have no other pick until the fourth round. It does look possible if not likely that he falls that far, and I would heavily consider him there. Even if the Leafs don’t, they may still have a shot at him in the fifth round.

His next season will be pretty revealing of his future development, but what he will do is in doubt. By now he is too good for Finland’s junior leagues and needs to play against tougher competition. He finished a two year contract with his Finnish club, and was reportedly disappointed he didn’t get any promotion to the men’s leagues (Liiga or Mestis). He wants to play against men, and is waiting to find out if he will given a spot this coming season.

If he doesn’t get that chance in Finland, he might want to at least play against tougher competition among his age group — he was a top import draft pick by Seattle in the WHL, and has all but been promised a top pairing role if he chooses to play for them. He will also likely be a leading player for Slovakia once again in their international junior tournaments.

Since he has been playing in Finland, whether he chooses to stay in Europe or just one season in the WHL, I believe he could make the jump to the AHL the following year if he’s ready. Considering his relative youth and skills, he could make some significant strides under the watchful development-eye of the Leafs staff. Help him get stronger, improve his defense, strengthen his best skills even more, and so on.

From an interview I read of him, he sounds very driven to succeed. He wants to be picked higher, he wants to play against older and tougher competition, and he wants to win. I can’t see his skating and playmaking and not want to roll the dice on him in the fourth round.

Poll

Where Would You Want the Leafs to Take Knazko?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    2nd round
    (6 votes)
  • 59%
    4th round
    (74 votes)
  • 27%
    5th round
    (34 votes)
  • 6%
    6th or 7th round
    (8 votes)
  • 2%
    Not at all
    (3 votes)
125 votes total Vote Now