Life is a little more straightforward here in North America when it comes to junior-aged hockey players. There are several, clear restrictions on where a player can play. Once reassigned from an NHL training camp, a teenager drafted out of the Canadian Hockey League has one option – to return to their major junior club for the entirety of the season. The only exception is for an emergency call-up.
But in Russia, where the Vancouver Canucks’ top prospect Vasily Podkolzin is playing, there really are no restrictions. And this leads to a player living the life of a yo-yo.
The 18-year-old was expected to play a full-time role in the KHL this season – Russia’s equivalent of the NHL. However, Podkolzin has struggled to earn consistent ice-time with SKA St. Petersburg – a perennial KHL powerhouse. In 10 games in the top league, the recently-turned 18-year-old has averaged just under five minutes per game. Unsurprisingly, he failed to record a point.
This has led to his constant movement between two other leagues – the VHL (Russia’s equivalent of the American Hockey League), and the MHL (Russia’s equivalent of the CHL for U20 players). Fortunately for Podkolzin’s sake, all three clubs are based in St. Petersburg so his Air Miles are not racking up too quickly. This fortunate geographical setup allows the organization to maximize his playing time depending on each team’s schedule.
Earlier this week, the 10th overall selection from the 2019 NHL Draft scored his first goal of the 2019-20 campaign. Skating on the top power-play unit in the VHL, Podkolzin wired one from the top of the circle to get the monkey off of his back 15 games into the campaign.
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) October 2, 2019
Now, it may have taken longer than some had hoped for him to bend the twine – and I’m sure Podkolzin would agree, but just because the counting stats don’t jump off of the page, this remains a player with tantalizing upside.
Watch below as he manhandles the U20 competition in the MHL. His speed and skill are evident. But it’s his powerful mandate to force his way to the net at every opportunity that truly stands out.
The power forward distributes the puck at a high-level too. In just two games at the junior level, Podkolzin has four assists. Below is a look at his great awareness as he looks shot the whole way until the netminder makes the first move to commit. He then slides a no-look pass right into his linemate’s wheelhouse.
The fears surrounding Podkolzin on draft day were two-fold. It was well-known that he had two years remaining on his KHL contract with SKA. The Canucks were comfortable waiting until the 2021-22 season before getting a close look at him in camp.
The second concern spawns from simply developing in Russia where NHL clubs have literally no influence. Would Podkolzin toil as a healthy scratch or 13th forward and lose a year of development? Would his Russian club play the hometown card and attempt to extend him for longer?
These questions will remain unanswered for now, but the fact that he’s gaining experience playing in the second-best league in the world – albeit in a limited role, is encouraging. Additionally, he is seeing prime ice in a professional league (VHL), and even taking a spin at bullying his age-group.
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Fans can look forward to seeing Podkolzin on the big stage at this year’s World Junior Championships where he will be a returning player expected to star at the event. Last year, as a 17-year-old draft-eligible, he forced his way up the lineup as the tournament progressed, finishing with three assists in seven games. Rare do we see 17 year olds make the Russian squad let alone earn any offensive deployment.
Podkolzin has made a habit of hitting new offensive heights on the international stage, and this year’s World Juniors in the Czech Republic should be no different.
We’ll have to wait to awhile yet to pencil him into the Canucks top-six forward group, but that’s the light at the end of the yo-yo life for Podkolzin.