Waiting for Podkolzin
Much of the conflicted feelings in 2019 revolved around Podkolzin’s availability. While he made it clear the NHL was his intended destination, the KHL saw it differently. Coming from one of the richest teams in the league, they had two years to convince him to reach a deal at home. And if money wasn’t enough, they could – and did – limit his opportunities. Keeping Vasili Podkolzin out of the regular season games was easy enough. SKA St. Petersburg is a top team with plenty of talent available. He was stuck on the fourth line when he did make it to the top league and made the most of his time there. Canucks fans hated it, but it is a perfectly reasonable response to knowing a young player won’t be with the team in two seasons.
The kicker, though, was in the playoffs. When the games really mattered, both in 2020 and 2021, somehow the coach found time for Podkolzin. His time was usually limited by any mistakes he made on the defensive side of the puck getting him benched. That’s familiar enough to NHL fans watching a rookie work his way into the lineup. With the playoffs underway, though, the shackles were removed. As a result, he led the team with six goals and 11 points in 16 games. By comparison, he had five goals and 11 points in 35 regular-season KHL games. Almost as if he had the skill, but was being deliberately held back by his coaches.*
Welcome to Vancouver, Vatseely-ef Potsloafaff!
That the “Russian Bias” was in play in 2019 certainly helped the Canucks scoop Podkolzin at 10. His talent was obvious, but there was a wait of two years before he came to North America. Still, outside of very few players, nearly every draft pick needs work before trying the NHL. It’s the top league in the world. Even if he came over early, the odds of Podkolzin playing on the Canucks in 2019-20 or 2020-21 were remote. Even when he did arrive for training camp, he did so with an excellent attitude. If the team decides he needs AHL time, then to the AHL he would go!
Spoiler: He didn’t go to the AHL.
Vasili Podkolzin will have the spotlight on him at #Canucks rookie camp with a few additional years playing abroad under his belt…@FarhanLaljiTSN on how the 20-year-old could be poised for a big role in Vancouver this season: https://t.co/LjOeyHVmhP#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/guooIGU4tj
— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) September 18, 2021
Some of his treatment in the KHL carried over, though, and he was hard on himself early. Watching him play made fans nervous – not for mistakes he’d make, but for how he would react to them. For the criticism then-coach Travis Green has received, he was aware of players gripping their sticks. It took a while for Podkolzin to actually relax into his role on the Canucks. This doesn’t mean he was given carte blanche, of course. He still needed to earn his time and started out in Vancouver’s bottom six, eventually working his way up and onto the power play. Eventually, he was playing well enough to be memorable for more than Stan Smyl‘s… interesting… pronunciation of his name.
No One Wants to Play Against a Hobgoblin
His importance to the team became apparent by the time Green was replaced by Bruce Boudreau. Vasili Podkolzin needed to prove himself again – so he did. Much of Boudreau’s time early was finding line combinations that worked best, so a lot of players were shifted around. Podkolzin found himself getting used everywhere, including some additional power play time.
While Podkolzin’s offensive production was oddly consistent – five points in each of his first and second twenty games, six in his third – his real hallmark is his defence. And that defence shone through all year long. While Tanner Pearson is the surprise guest on the Canucks top-3 lines in expected goals, drop the minutes played from 100 to 50 and Podkolzin appears. The Canucks best line, in fact, is him with Elias Pettersson and Nils Höglander nearly 70% of expected goals when they are together. In second place is Podkolzin with Conor Garland and J.T. Miller.
Along with his consistent point totals comes the real fun of watching him. Vasili Podkolzin hates – HATES – when the opposing team has the puck. His 32 takeaways come in less than 13 average minutes of ice time. He’s a dogged pursuer of the puck at all times, and he’s also got enough skill to do something with it. As the season continued, he grew more comfortable. As he grew more comfortable, he became more dangerous. In the final 19 games of his season, he scored 4 goals and 10 points, got more time on the power play and more time overall.
There has been much made of the Canucks having an “untouchable four” in the lineup. That’s Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko, and Bo Horvat – though Horvat’s name is creeping up in trade discussions more and more. Add Vasili Podkolzin to that list. Trading away Podkolzin now would be absolutely ridiculous, as he’s clearly shown he can fit on any line, and odds are very good he’ll produce a lot more in 2022-23.
That he has two seasons to go on his entry-level deal only ices it. By year three this could be the most valuable contract on the team outside Demko. His rookie season totals aren’t jaw-dropping – 14 goals and 26 points in 79 games – but they’re good. And every one of those points was earned the hard way. It’s an easy bet to see him – and Höglander, for that matter – having a permanent spot on the team’s top two lines. The Canucks need cheap deals and bargain players to get them through the next couple of years. Podkolzin isn’t just a low-risk player: he’s exactly what they’re looking for.
All that being said, he is just one player. He is going to help the team do all sorts of things, including moving players out in his favour. That will help balance the books while making the team younger. His solid defensive play might get him time on the penalty kill – a sore point early on. He’s shown he can play with skilled linemates, and indeed should so they can take advantage of his acumen. He’s not a saviour, but he is a keeper.
This brings the question of who might go to mind. Unless the offer is truly insane, it won’t be Podkolzin.
*Weird, and totally irrelevant to this year’s draft. Surely.