This is what happens when you’re a fan of an organization that has gone through as much heartbreak and turmoil as the Vancouver Canucks have.
You begin to doubt your eyes. You look for negatives rather than see the light shining through the darkness.
We’re seeing it firsthand as people fall over themselves to question top prospect Vasily Podkolzin less than eight months from the draft floor because his counting stats fail to pop eyes.
I’m here to tell you that your concerns, while understandable, are not justified.
Hard to get ice time in the KHL
The 10th overall selection in the 2019 NHL Draft has been in the unenviable position of being a young forward owned by a top-rated KHL club. SKA St. Petersburg, a club blessed with several former NHL forwards and several more established veteran KHLers, is a perennial contender. The result of that means that the 18-year-old rookie sees a modest 6:03 of average ice time per contest.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Podkolzin has failed to record a point in 16 KHL games. Yet if you watch him play, his game still stands out in those limited minutes.
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The 6-foot-1, 192-pound winger pressures the play with his sturdy defensive play — likely the best part of his game at this point. He drives the net with unbridled enthusiasm. He is unafraid to slip a deke or two in — often with success.
He can step up and lay the boom.
At the VHL level, all those traits have been there as well, only with triple the ice time. The result is a tidy three goals and eight points in 16 games.
That per-game rate leads all U19 skaters and is fourth for U20 players in Russia’s second division — a league that is no joke and is difficult to produce in for teenagers. In fact, no U19 skater has ever crested 30 points in the V.
With less than 30 seconds to play in overtime, Vasily Podkolzin, strips, goes hard to the net, gets a second chance and buries it.
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) November 23, 2019
Underrated play at the World Juniors
At the most recent World Junior Championships, many expected the bullish winger to challenge for the tournament scoring lead and the MVP award. Yet, once again, the production was not earth-shattering, as he scored one goal and five points in seven contests.
But once again, if you look past the counting stats, you’ll find he was a high-end contributor on the silver medalists. Podkolzin was setting up teammates for chances. He was a monster defensively and on the penalty-kill. He led Russia’s forwards in time-on-ice, and all while still being an underage skater.
Here’s how he did it.
Great playmaking ability
There are some players who you can just tell will benefit greatly from improved surrounding skillsets. Podkolzin is one of those players.
There are countless examples from the World Juniors where he set up his teammates only to have them fail to finish. Those plays will start going in more often when he’s around more refined players.
Podkolzin’s play-creation and vision are very impressive, as evidenced here (he’s wearing #11 in red):
Hugo Alnefelt with an incredible stop!
Vasily Podkolzin set up Kirill Marchenko for a gimme but the Swedish netminder had other ideas. #WorldJuniors
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) January 4, 2020
And here too:
And those were just a few of the glorious scoring chances he set up that weren’t finished off by his teammates.
Podkolzin has been a staunch defensive presence, even in the second-best league in the world, but especially at the World Juniors. His success in that area is predicated by his providing impressive pressure on the puck carrier. By taking direct routes and forcing quick decisions, he causes defenders to make mistakes when he’s on the forecheck, flipping possession and causing odd-man rushes while on the back-check.
Here’s an example of it while on the penalty kill:
Here's a look at a Vasily Podkolzin play on the PK from this morning that exemplifies his all-around game.
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) January 2, 2020
This ability will provide immediate dividends in his quest for the coach’s trust at the NHL level. Knowing he can handle himself — and sometimes even cheat a little too much on the safe side, will allow for an immediate slot in the Canucks’ top-nine when he arrives.
While we’re on the topic, here is my understanding regarding his potential arrival.
As The Athletic’s Harmal Dayal reported recently, Podkolzin rejected a lucrative five-year extension on his KHL deal moments before the draft took place last June. He made it known that he wished to honour his two-year agreement with SKA and then head to the NHL.
There are avenues for dissolving KHL contracts early — firstly, the player must buy themselves out, not the team who owns their NHL rights. But from my understanding, the real hurdle is a player must give 18 months’ notice before dissolving the contract. Podkolzin has 15 months remaining on his deal.
It is virtually impossible for Vasily Podkozlin to opt-out of his KHL contract early.
The absolute earliest he could arrive in Vancouver is March 2021 if SKA fails to reach the playoffs or is ousted early. https://t.co/vOJrmDVWay
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) January 14, 2020
As such, the earliest Canucks’ fans can expect to see the Moskva-native is March 2021. And for those concerned about his development being hindered at home in Russia, I wouldn’t stress about it.
For this season, if he’s seeing a regular, even-strength shift in the KHL, he’ll gain a great deal. If not, he’ll be playing top-six minutes in the VHL. For 2020-21, his role should elevate and we’ll see him apart of SKA’s special teams units.
Here’s hoping the numbers start to pop a bit more so I can stop writing these calming pieces.