It’s been an odd season for the Vancouver Canucks’ top prospect.
Vasily Podkolzin hasn’t exactly racked up points for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, causing some concern for Canucks fans that keep a close eye on prospect point totals. Some of that lack of production could be due to a lack of opportunity, as his team isn’t keen on giving a teenager ice time or a spot power play, particularly not one that has made it clear he’ll be leaving for the NHL as soon as possible.
That’s what makes the upcoming 2021 World Junior Championship so exciting, both for Podkolzin himself and for Canucks fans. Instead of being buried on the fourth line, Podkolzin will be front and centre as Russia’s captain.
Russia’s head coach for the World Juniors is former Canuck Igor Larionov, also known in his playing days as “The Professor.” Larionov has previously praised Podkolzin effusively, comparing him to a “young Mark Messier.” Heading into this year’s World Juniors, Larionov laid out his expectations for the young power forward in an interview with TSN.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a team leader, he’s a guy that can handle the pressure, who can do a lot of good little things for his team,” said Larionov. “To me, Vasily coming back in year three of the World Juniors, I expect him to be a top guy and a guy to go and lead the way for the Russian Junior team.”
Larionov also spoke to the difficulty young players like Podkolzin face while playing in the KHL for coaches who feel the need to stifle their more creative, offensive side for a safer, steadier style of play.
“That’s one of the biggest tasks for me, when I’m getting the boys from the KHL teams,” said Larionov. “They’re very strict. Because they’re young, the coaches always put them under pressure and they're not playing the boys to go through mistakes. When they come to my hands in the national team, the World Junior team, I kind of let the boys be the boys and play the game, create some chances, do some stuff they were doing as a kid.”
So far, that approach is working for Podkolzin. Playing with the Russian junior team in the Karjala Cup against men, Podkolzin was a standout, leading the tournament in scoring with five points in three games, including a game-tying assist and game-winning shootout goal in the final.
If that’s a preview of how he’ll perform at the World Juniors, Podkolzin should silence some doubters.
“I like Vasily,” said Larionov. “His skill level is top-notch. Sometimes he can do a bit too much, but he’s now going to be with a good centre, so now I think he’s going to do his job more efficiently and effectively.”
Podkolzin is expected to play on the top line with Rodion Amirov, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 15th-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and centre Marat Khusnutdinov, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild. Amirov will be in his second World Junior tournament, while it will be the first for the 18-year-old Khusnutdinov.
Larionov suggested he’d get the team to play a style similar to when he was with the Detroit Red Wings and the famed “Russian Five” played a mesmerizing puck possession game with quick passing and smart movement. If Russia can pull that off, World Junior watchers will be in for a real treat.
Blessing your timeline with a mixtape of Russian Five passing plays and movement pic.twitter.com/9xQhvf1qdy— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) December 17, 2020
The tournament kicks off on Christmas day, with Russia playing a marquee game against Team USA at 6:30 PM PST on TSN.
Diehards can also catch Russia in exhibition action prior to the start of the tournament, also on TSN. They’ll play Slovakia on December 21st at 6:30 PM PST and Canada on December 23rd at 3:00 PM.