Both Vancouver Canucks prospects at the 2021 World Junior Championship came out of their first games with a big win.
On Christmas, Vasily Podkolzin and Team Russia turned a big second period into an important victory over Team USA that put them in the driver’s seat in a tough Group B. The next day, Arvid Costmar and Team Sweden ran roughshod over the Czech Republic to show Russia they won’t have an easy path to first place in Group B.
After a quiet game on the scoresheet from Podkolzin, Costmar’s first game was gratifying for Canucks fans, as he quickly got on the board with a great goal.
The score was already 1-0 for the Czech Republic on a power play goal by Montreal Canadiens prospect Jan Myšák, as the Czechs seemed to catch the Swedes back on their heels early on. Costmar responded less than a minute later.
Arvid Costmar's game-tying goal
The play started with Costmar smartly getting open through the neutral zone for a breakaway off a stretch pass by Arizona Coyotes defenceman Victor Soderstrom. Costmar’s backhand move was turned aside by Czech goaltender Nick Malik, but Sweden kept the pressure on in the offensive zone.
A few seconds later, Costmar caught his check, Minnesota Wild prospect Pavel Novak, puck watching and darted to the net behind him, where Soderstrom found him again with a superb pass. Costmar angled his stick perfectly and went down on one knee to redirect the pass up over Malik’s outstretched pad.
Costmar’s prime offensive weapon is his shot and he had three of Sweden’s 41 shots. All of his shots came at even strength, as he isn’t on either of the Swedish power play units. Instead, Costmar was a go-to centre for the penalty kill, taking several key faceoffs while shorthanded. He went 9-for-17 in the faceoff circle overall.
Despite no power play time, Costmar was one of Sweden's top players at creating offence in this game according to expected goals and assists statistics tracks by Elite Prospect's Mitch Brown.
A few stats from Sweden vs. Czech Republic:— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) December 26, 2020
Söderström posted huge offensive numbers, finishing second in the game to a terrific performance from Costmar. 2021 eligible Oskar Olausson with impressive totals in <11 minutes, too. #WorldJuniors pic.twitter.com/VeQ88Y2nJ6
“He’s a smart player, a smart two-way player. Plays on the right side of the puck all the time,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning to Patrick Johnston of The Province. “I think he’s got some more confidence this season in his offensive game.”
While he doesn’t have a lot of dazzle to his game, Costmar’s ability to find open space served him well all game in all three zones. He effectively opened himself up for his defencemen on the breakout and made several nice passes to spring zone exits and entries.
Costmar’s playmaking overall was impressive, at one point springing his linemate, New York Islanders prospect Simon Holmström for a chance with a precise stretch pass. Costmar was on the second line with Holmström and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Noel Gunler, but with Sweden’s lack of centre depth, he may get a chance to play between Sweden’s “Terror Twins,” Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond, who were both top ten picks at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
Holtz and Raymond were kept relatively quiet while playing with Anaheim Ducks prospect Albin Sundsvik at centre, though Sweden certainly didn’t need their offence: Sweden scored three goals in each of the second and third periods for a 7-1 rout.
With the playmaking Costmar showed, he could get an opportunity with Raymond and Holtz later in the tournament. Even if he doesn’t, it was still an impressive World Junior debut for Costmar, a seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft for the Canucks.
“Costmar is tracking extremely well for a 7th-round pick,” said J.D. Burke of Elite Prospects. “Before his draft, I didn’t like his skating and I hated his work rate, but both of those parts of his game have taken some pretty sizable steps forward.”
If he continues to work on those parts of his game that saw him slide to the seventh round, Costmar could have an NHL future, as he has the right habits and grit to play a two-way role in the bottom six. That Sweden is depending on him for the penalty kill is a positive sign.
Vasily Podkolzin's quiet contributions
Unlike Costmar, the Canucks are hoping for more than a bottom-six forward out of Podkolzin. That’s why his lack of production in the KHL has been such a concern for Canucks fans, who question if he has the upside to play on the first or second line in the NHL.
Making a big splash in the first game of the tournament would have gone a long way towards silencing his doubters, but Podkolzin didn’t hit the scoresheet aside from two shots on goal. Instead, he played his usual effective two-way game against Team USA, winning puck battles along the boards, creating turnovers at the blue line, and keeping his teammates focused, even if it meant pulling them out of post-whistle scrums. He was part of the reason why the high-powered U.S. forwards were stymied offensively for most of the game.
Still, something was missing offensively for Podkolzin. There seemed to be a lack of chemistry on his line, with several occasions where Podkolzin was looking for a pass from one of his linemates only to see Marat Khusnutdinov or Rodion Amirov attempt to go 1-on-1 with a defenceman instead.
Some moments could have turned into something more. Podkolzin lowered his shoulder on one great drive to the net in the first period after stealing the puck at the blue line, but couldn’t get his shot to go. On another occasion in the first, he pulled up after a stretch pass and found Amirov cross-ice, but the pass was a bit in his skates and Amirov couldn’t handle it.
That was a microcosm of how the whole game seemed to go for Russia’s top line, as they couldn't quite connect. Given the lack of exhibition games, perhaps they’ll find a rhythm as the tournament progresses.
Given Podkolzin’s mindset, getting a 5-3 win over Team USA likely felt better than any goal he could have scored. It was closer than it should have been, as the US scored two goals in the third period to get within striking distance. Podkolzin charged out to block both shots, but they got by both him and goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, the 11th-overall pick of the Nashville Predators.
One game does not decide who Podkolzin is or will be, of course. It certainly would be nice to see Podkolzin erupt for some amazing goals like he scored at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup before he was drafted, but the NHL-level habits he already has in his game ensure he’ll still be an impact player for the Canucks.
Podkolzin plays next for Russia against the Czech Republic on Sunday, December 27nd at 6:30 pm PST, while Costmar and Sweden take on Austria on Monday, December 28th at 3:00 pm PST. Both games will be on TSN.