When the Canucks selected Vasili Podkolzin tenth overall at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, there was some justified excitement for the young Russian winger. When you watch Podkolzin play, you see a thrilling power forward that is as tenacious defensively as he is offensively, with the desire and ability to drive to the net with authority.
There was really just one problem: the numbers.
Podkolzin’s statistics at every level didn’t really pop out like you would expect from a blue-chip prospect. In his draft year, he played three KHL games and didn’t record a point and had just 5 points in 14 VHL games, the men’s league a step below the KHL. Even in the junior MHL, Podkolzin’s numbers were good, but not spectacular: 6 goals and 8 points in 12 games.
At the World Under-18 Championships, Podkolzin captained the Russian squad to a silver medal, but he didn’t exactly tear up the scoresheet. He was sixth on his own team in scoring with 4 points in 7 games.
It was only at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup that Podkolzin produced like the elite prospect he’s supposed to be: he racked up a whopping 8 goals and 11 points in just 5 games.
The thing with Podkolzin is that he always performed at a high level, but the points didn’t follow. He would set up his teammates for great chances and they wouldn’t convert or he’d create a great chance for himself and his finish would abandon him in the final moment.
It’s not like he didn’t score at all and, when he did, it was often spectacular; he just didn’t put up the big numbers that you might expect and that’s continued in his post-draft season.
In his first 17 KHL games, Podkolzin didn’t record a single point. In the VHL, he’s produced at a lower rate than his draft season, just 8 points in 16 games. At the World Juniors, he was 8th on his team in scoring with 5 points in 7 games, which is okay production, but not the kind of dominance you hope for from a top-10 pick.
Three games ago in the KHL, however, Podkolzin broke through with his first KHL goal. The game after that, he did it again, giving him goals in back-to-back games. Then on Sunday, he delivered his first assist, giving him a bonafide streak: three points in three games.
That means it’s time to get hyped up.
Podkolzin’s first KHL goal was a beauty, as he took control of a deflected saucer pass from former Edmonton Oiler Anton Belov and cut straight to the net behind fellow teenager Nikita Rtischev, who was likely immediately benched for his poor defensive effort.
The finish is what matters here. Podkolzin showed tremendous patience, cutting all the way across the crease to tuck the puck around goaltender Lars Johansson. That’s a power forward move that shows a willingness to take whatever hit was coming to finish off the play. Sure, the hit never came, but he was willing to take it.
His second goal shows his ability to stick with a play and a wickedly hard wrist shot. Carrying the puck down the right wing, he tried to sneak a pass through to teammate Lukas Bengtsson on the rush with a little deception, but Ak Bars defenceman Mikael Wikstrand was having none of it, kicking aside the past.
Podkolzin kept with the play, pulled the puck in and whipped it through the legs of the goaltender.
Back-to-back goals after 17 scoreless games? Be still my beating heart! But Podkolzin wasn’t done. In his next game, he showed off his playmaking with a nifty assist.
It started off with something we’re used to seeing from Podkolzin: a relentless forecheck. Podkolzin closed on Torpedo forward Ilyin Daniil and knocked the puck free with a quick stick check, then flicked a backhand saucer pass to Ivan Morozov. For once, one of his setups actually led to a goal, as Morozov snapped the puck in.
The slow motion replay shows just how impressive this pass truly is. Podkolzin keeps his eyes on the goal the whole way, giving no indication that he’s about to pass the puck. His saucer pass lands perfectly on Morozov’s stick: it’s a truly gorgeous pass.
With three points in three games, it’s time to get excited about Podkolzin again, pencilling him into future Canucks lineups and imagining the hardware that will ensue: a Calder Trophy, for sure, then a Rocket Richard, Art Ross, Hart, and of course a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe.
If you sense a little sarcasm, that’s fair. The truth is that these three points are exciting — it’s great to see Podkolzin break through in the KHL — but it’s just an inevitable result of how fantastic Podkolzin already was. It doesn’t change much about his trajectory as a prospect. His advanced defensive game for his age already ensured an NHL career and his physical and mental tools were eventually going to result in offence.
It may seem a little silly to praise Podkolzin for just three points, when Elias Pettersson erupted for 56 points in 44 games in his post-draft season in the SHL, a league that isn’t far off in quality from the KHL. But Podkolzin producing those three points in the KHL is legitimately impressive.
Let’s keep in mind that Podkolzin is still just 18. He has a late June birthday, making him one of the youngest players in his draft class. The truth is, 18 year olds don’t often even play in the KHL, let alone produce points. Podkolzin is one of just five players under the age of 19 to play 20 games in the KHL this season.
That’s particularly true for Podkolzin’s team, SKA St. Petersburg. According to Elite Prospects, only six players under the age of 19 have ever played a game for SKA; Podkolzin is the only one to score a goal and he’s already tied for the most points ever by an under-19 player with three.
SKA is hesitant to give ice time to young players, preferring more trustworthy veterans, so Podkolzin getting any ice time sets him apart from other young prospects.
In three Podkolzin’s first four games, he got under a minute in ice time. In his fifth game, he cracked the minute mark, playing 1:08. More recently, he’s averaging around 10 minutes per game and even getting some power play time, playing as a net front presence.
Hopefully, this outburst of scoring is a sign of things to come, as he forces SKA to give him more ice time and more opportunities to produce. Then maybe he can put up some numbers that really spark some excitement.