Vasili Podkolzin’s 18-year old season has been frustrating for the Russian winger.
Averaging just five and a half minutes of ice time per game in the KHL, Podkolzin has barely been given a chance to showcase his abilities in Russia’s best men’s league. His demotion to the VHL was a welcome change, as he has been given a greater role in SKA-Neva’s middle-six while notching eight points in 16 games. However, playing for the Russian U20 squad, Vasili Podkolzin entered an entirely new realm of opportunity. He was thrust into a pivotal role in Russia’s top-six and leaned upon heavily as the stakes escalated.
The Canucks prospect was one of two 18-year-olds to play for Russia this yea,r but this isn’t the first time Podkolzin’s youth has been an outlier. The tournament prior, he was one of only nine 17-year olds to have played for the U20 Russia team since 2010. Last year, he played limited minutes on the fourth line, but this time around, Podkolzin took on a leadership role by wearing an ‘A’, while also leading all Russian forwards in ice time.
As the games grew in importance, Podkolzin’s ice time increased too. Following the round-robin, he was Russia’s most used forward. Not only was he playing in Russia’s top-six but he also played heavy special-teams minutes on the second power-play unit and on the penalty-kill as one of the main forwards.
Podkolzin’s reputation as a net-driving power-forward preceded him coming into this tournament, but there were questions surrounding his ability to read the ice and use his teammates. Consider those questions answered, as this Podkolzin’s playmaking attributes were on full display throughout the tournament.
The winger finished the tournament with one goal and four assists, but likely could have added a few more apples had his teammates been able to capitalize on some grade-A scoring chances. His passing ability was particularly noticeable on the power-play, as evidenced by the three plays above. When his team has possession in the offensive zone, Podkolzin’s vision for finding teammates in scoring areas is an asset and should put to rest some concerns about his playmaking ability.
Podkolzin’s usage on the power-play was fascinating as he wasn’t a traditional net-front presence. Instead, he made the goal line his office, constantly rotating between both sides of the net to become a passing option below the circle.
Notice Podkolzin’s pathing in the clip above. Rather than cutting towards the front of the net as #13 in white receives the puck, Podkolzin elects to skate behind the net to become a passing option down low. This initiates a quick-set low option, a standard set-play in a 1-3-1 power-play formation where the puck quickly moves from the half-wall to the ‘low’ player and then into the slot for a chance. As the clip continues, Podkolzin briefly parks himself in front of the net but as #9 corrals the puck on his own half-wall, Podkolzin immediately shifts out to the side of the net looking to receive a pass. The puck works it’s way back to the left-wing and Podkolzin has his stick on the ice hoping to receive a pass that he can redirect. However, watch how freely the Czech goaltender is left to track the puck without a strong net-front presence. He is square to the shooter and his feet are set, with the full ability to see the puck leave #13’s stick.
Contrast Podkolzin’s work as the net-front player to Dimitry Voronkov. This clip starts the same as Voronkov is a passing option below the circle. As the puck is worked up to the point, Voronkov slides in front of the net and takes away the goalie’s eyes. He is still able to shift his positioning to serve as a redirect option but once that play is reversed and the puck gets sent back to the point a second time, Voronkov takes away the goalie’s vision again. Notice how the Czech goalie has to peer around Voronkov and isn’t as quick to react to the cross-ice pass. Obviously, there is a notable height difference between Voronkov and Podkolzin but regardless of size, the net-front player still needs to serve as a distraction for the goaltender on the power-play. Voronkov’s unit started as the second group but quickly became Russia’s primary power-play, in part, due to his effectiveness in front of the net. This is less criticism on Podkolzin but just something to note as this could have been something that he was instructed to do.
Where concerns still linger about Podkolzin’s ability is his skating stride. There were times where he looked fast and intimidating, using his powerful stride to work his way up the ice:
This was one of the few times where Podkolzin had room to get on his horse and jet up the ice. His acceleration is fantastic coming out of a tight turn and his stride looks like a minor improvement over his draft year. It’s lengthened out into a fuller extension although his heel kick is still noticeable.
Here is a classic Podkolzin net drive where he wills his way towards the Swedish goal. Those expecting Podkolzin to dominate the tournament likely thought he was going to take the puck from end-to-end and drive towards the net at will. However, as competition stiffens and he plays against players that are of his caliber, these rushes become harder to create, especially when his skating breaks down.
In his first two strides, his heel kick is extremely noticeable and he doesn’t build up enough speed to attack the blueline. He’s coming in on a 1-on-4 so not a lot is expected of him here but his stride does him no favours.
Impactful two-way game
While he finished the tournament with five points in seven games, his offensive production only paints part of the picture. Defensively, he was responsible as ever, constantly staying active away from the puck.
Podkolzin reads and anticipates the ice at a very high level while playing defense. His high work-rate and active stick allow him to disrupt plays all over the ice. In the clip above, Podkolzin reacts to the pass to the point and is quickly able to activate and challenge the shooter, getting his stick on the puck and deflecting it wide. Had he not gotten a stick on the puck, the closeout would still pressure the Czech defenceman to make a quick decision. This ability is also the reason why Podkolzin was relied upon as one of the main penalty-killing forwards as high-effort and active sticks are essentials for a good penalty kill.
As the lone forward out to kill a 5-on-3, Podkolzin’s stickwork and positioning is immaculate as the puck gets worked around the perimeter. He challenges the puck carrier while protecting the center of the ice and gets his stick on two shots that deflect out of harm’s way.
Defensive responsibilities for forwards do not end once the puck is 200-feet away from their goal. In this clip, Podkolzin is in on the forecheck and forces a turnover. The left side defenceman (#26) activates to keep the play alive and Podkolzin smartly recognizes this and replaces him at the point. This ensures that there are two Russian players at the blue line in the event of a rush the other way and Podkolzin even takes a turn at holding the puck in at the line.
Managing the puck and making sure it is secured before going off for a change is another element to being a strong two-way player. In this play, Podkolzin covers his pinching defenceman and regroups with the puck in the neutral zone. He isn’t fully able to get around the Czech player at the red line but maintains possession of the puck. Not liking what he sees, Podkolzin hits his open defenceman with a pass, ensuring the puck is safely controlled before heading off to change.
Over the World Junior Championship’s small sample size, displays of dominance are not a surefire indicator of success in the NHL. Look no further than Casey Mittlestadt or Eeli Tolvanen who had great showings in past WJC’s but have yet to figure out the NHL level. Meanwhile, Martin Necas had a disappointing tournament last year but is having a very solid rookie campaign in the NHL. While little weight should be placed on an 18-year old’s seven-game tournament there is still helpful information to be gleaned.
Vasili Podkolzin may not have dominated the stat sheet in the manner Canucks fans had hoped, but his impact was immeasurable en route to the Russian’s second-place finish. In no way does this guarantee NHL stardom, but it was a helpful look into Podkolzin’s development. Podkolzin will have another year in Russia to further progress and he will be back in 2021 to go for Gold in Alberta.
– footage from TSN and The NHL Network