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Rookie Watch: Suter, Lankinen, Whitecloud among undrafted standouts

Blackhawks forward, goalie, Golden Knights defenseman playing key roles

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

The impact several rookies are making on the NHL is one of the major storylines of the 2020-21 season. Every two weeks, will examine topics related to this season's class in the Rookie Watch.

This week, six undrafted rookies making an impact in the NHL; minimum 20 games played (listed alphabetically):

Nikolai Knyzhov, D, San Jose Sharks: The 23-year-old is a prototypical defenseman. He's third among Sharks defensemen with 35 hits and sixth with 28 blocked shots. He also has four assists and 19 shots on goal in 30 games.

Knyzhov (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) signed an entry-level contact July 2, 2019, after playing two seasons in Russia, including three games with SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League in 2018-19. He scored five points (one goal, four assists) and was a plus-4 in 33 games with San Jose of the American Hockey League last season, which earned him a three-game call-up to the Sharks in March before the season was paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. He averaged 10:49 of ice time, but his average of 7.39 blocked shots per 60 minutes of ice time led San Jose defensemen.

"He's a big guy with great feet and he plays a heavy game down low," Sharks coach Bob Boughner said. "All young guys are going to make some mistakes and there's going to be some room for improvement, but it's our job to keep developing them. I think he's handled himself pretty well under some pressure (against) some good teams in trying to be a steady guy in the NHL."

Kevin Lankinen, G, Chicago Blackhawks: Lankinen is 10-7-4 with a 2.87 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and one shutout in 21 games after entering training camp as the third goalie on the depth chart behind Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia.

The 25-year-old signed a two-year contract with the Blackhawks on May 21, 2018 after playing in Liiga, the top professional league in Finland, the previous five seasons. Lankinen (6-2, 185) signed a two-year contract to remain with Chicago on April 2, 2020.

"He's such a hard-working and driven individual, it's not surprising, really," Blackhawks developmental goaltending coach Peter Aubry said. "Especially with the consistency component. He brings the same thing day in and day out, whether he has a practice jersey on or a game jersey on. I feel really good about the fact that he's doing it day in and day out."

Nico Sturm, F, Minnesota Wild: The 25-year-old has been a productive bottom-six forward this season, scoring six points (three goals, three assists) in 27 games, with 21 hits and 37 shots on goal.

Sturm (6-3, 207) signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Wild on April 1, 2019. He signed another one-year contract last season and scored 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 55 games as a rookie with Iowa of the AHL. He signed a two-year contract Oct. 5, 2020.

"He's got an element that we really like and that's speed and work," Wild coach Dean Evason said. "We have seen him progress here. He had a real good year obviously in Iowa and played well in the (2020 Stanley Cup Playoff) bubble. He's a very versatile guy."

Pius Suter, F, Chicago Blackhawks: Suter is second among NHL rookies with eight goals, tied for first with three game-winning goals and tied for eighth with 13 points in 32 games. The 24-year-old is averaging 16:21 of ice time per game and has been centering the Blackhawks' No. 1 line, along with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.

Suter (5-11, 176) signed a one-year contract July 16, 2020, after he led National League, the top professional league in Switzerland, with 30 goals and 53 points and was named the league's most valuable player.

"He's improved his mobility from last year to this year," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. "He's a very smart player, he's really good around the net, but his skating has allowed him to drive play and get through the neutral zone, get out of [defensive] zone. Obviously he's playing with a couple pretty good players (DeBrincat and Kane), but he can help them get out of the [defensive] zone and get attacking off the rush and in the offensive zone. It can really help us."

Zach Whitecloud, D, Vegas Golden Knights: Whitecloud (6-2, 211) has been a consistent presence for the Golden Knights this season, scoring seven points (two goals, five assists) and averaging 18:36 of ice time in 30 games. He's been on the ice for 11 even-strength goals-against, fewest of any Vegas defenseman to more than 15 games. He's also second among Golden Knights defensemen with 45 hits and second in blocked shots with 42. 

The 25-year-old signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Vegas on March 8, 2018, and after playing 16 regular-season games last season, he scored three points (two goals, one assist) and averaged 16:58 of ice time in 20 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"I love the fact that we've had a young guy like Zach Whitecloud come in," Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "We couldn't give him enough. He never faltered. He never failed. He met every challenge. He's established himself as a really good NHL defenseman. So I think that's really encouraging."

Artem Zub, D, Ottawa Senators: The 25-year-old right-handed shot has scored seven points (two goals, five assists) in 17:03 of ice time in 25 games this season.

Zub (6-2, 203) signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Senators on May 1, 2020, after he scored 13 goals with SKA St. Petersburg, tied for second among KHL defensemen last season, and led the league with a plus-35 rating.

"There's such a thing as gamers, and some guys are good practice players," Senators coach D.J. Smith said. "Then the game comes and they're just OK. And then there's other guys. He's not flashy. To me [Zub's] a gamer. When the game is on, he's so much more competitive and he doesn't give you an inch out there."

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