At this point, the Vancouver Canucks would normally be a month into the NHL season. There would be lots for Canucks fans to talk about or debate: a winning or losing streak, a few controversial lineup decisions, or a goal that was called back after a video review that didn’t make a lick of sense. You know, normal NHL stuff.
For those jonesing for a Canucks fix, there is at least one Canucks player you can watch: the team’s top prospect, Vasily Podkolzin.
Podkolzin is in action this week in Finland, playing for Team Russia at the Karjala Cup. Their first game of the tournament was Thursday morning, but you can catch the entire game on YouTube, where it was streamed by Russia Hockey.
For Podkolzin, it must have been a nice change of pace from his season in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg. In the KHL, Podkolzin has struggled to put up points, primarily because he gets minimal ice time. He’s averaging just 11:58 per game, but that average is skewed higher from a handful of games where he got more ice time because half his teammates were quarantined with COVID-19.
More recently, Podkolzin was sent down to the VHL, Russia’s second-tier men’s league, and when he came back to the KHL he was given just 3:52 in ice time.
Podkolzin’s KHL season has Canucks fans concerned, albeit for two different reasons. Some are worried that his lack of point production in the KHL means he doesn’t have top-six offensive upside in his NHL future. Others are worried that his lack of ice time in the KHL will derail his development.
With Team Russia, Podkolzin will hopefully ease both concerns. On Thursday, he led all Russian forwards in ice time and picked up two assists along the way.
Podkolzin was named captain of Team Russia heading into the Karjala Cup, which was a little bit surprising, but only because the Cup, as part of the Euro Hockey Tour, is ostensibly a men’s tournament. The Euro Hockey Tour is usually used by the four countries that participate — Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic — to prepare for the World Championships or the Olympics or evaluate players for the men’s national team.
Instead, Russia dressed an entirely junior roster, using the games instead to prepare for the World Junior Championship that will kick off on Christmas.
The reasoning behind sending a U20 team to Finland was simple: other U20 tournaments have been cancelled or had their format changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision to send a junior team wasn’t popular in Finland, evidently, with one Finnish hockey writer describing it as “outrageous.”
Maybe Finland should have sent their U20 teams to the Karjala Cup as well. Their U20 teams were meant to play three games this week as well in preparation for the World Juniors, but two Swedish players tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the cancellation of the event.
Finland’s head coach, Jukka Jalonen, certainly didn’t seem impressed by Russia’s decision.
"Speaking frankly, we have no interest playing against a U20 team,” he said. “We'll play if we have to but we couldn't care less."
Perhaps he said that because he didn’t expect much out of teenagers playing against his team of men, but Russia quickly made him eat his words, jumping out to a 1-0 lead within the game’s first two minutes. They never looked back, thumping Finland 6-2.
Podkolzin helped lead the way with his two assists and typical high work rate on the forecheck and in the neutral zone. He played in every situation, killing penalties and working the front of the net on the power play, and was clearly one of Russia’s best players.
He picked up his first assist on the 3-0 goal, chipping the puck past a Finnish defender on the boards with just one hand on his stick, then settling the bouncing puck and sending a pass through traffic to Ilya Safonov for the finish.
Podkolzin’s second assist came on the power play, but he had a lot more to do with the finish than the setup.
He simply moved the puck to Yegor Afanasyev on the right boards, then parked himself in front of the net while Afanasyev played catch with Danil Chayka at the top of the zone. When Chayka finally let a shot go from the point, Podkolzin was there to screen the goaltender and nearly tipped the puck in himself.
Podkolzin played the net-front role on the power play well, occasionally stepping to the side to provide a passing option or to create scoring chances, using his big frame and quick hands to protect the puck.
As is typical of Podkolzin, his play in the defensive zone and neutral zone were just as good as his work in the offensive zone. He made a couple nice breakups on the penalty kill, but I wanted to highlight this sequence in the third period.
Podkolzin starts the breakout by making a savvy play along the boards: instead of trying to force a pass through the middle, he makes a slick backhand pass off the boards to spring a Russian rush. He follows up the play, picking up the puck along the near boards and cycles it down low to Afanasyev.
When Afanasyev loses the puck, Podkolzin makes a beeline for the best place to win the puck back, stealing the puck from a Finnish player at the blueline and making a nifty toe-drag to evade a check. He was then able to get the puck back in the Finnish zone to facilitate a line change.
The play didn’t result in a goal, though Russia had a couple of shots on goal off the rush that Podkolzin created, it still demonstrates how Podkolzin does all the right things on the ice to push puck possession in the right direction. There’s a reason why coaches love him, excepting perhaps his coach in the KHL with SKA.
In any case, it seems clear that Podkolzin is going to get the ice time with the Russian U20 team that he isn’t getting in the KHL. Now it’s up to him to provide the point production.
The Canucks have one other prospect with Team Russia, 2020 6th-round pick Dmitri Zlodeyev. As an unheralded 18-year-old, Zlodeyev will likely have a tough time making the World Junior team and played minimal minutes against Finland. He only got on the ice in the third period with the game out of reach and then only on special teams, taking shifts on both the penalty kill and power play.