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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Vasili Podkolzin is the Vancouver Canucks’ top prospect (and it’s not even close!)

Vasili Podkolzin is the top-rated prospect in our CanucksArmy 2020 prospect rankings, and we must admit that it wasn’t a particularly close race. Not only was our internal selection of Podkolzin unanimous, but there’s also consensus across the hockey board, and you won’t find a hierarchy of would-be Canucks on the internet that doesn’t have the 19-year-old Russian in the top spot.

And yet, in the 2020/21 season thus far, Podkolzin has a stat-line of just two goals and four assists in 21 KHL contests for SKA St. Petersburg, and a single additional assist in his one VHL game thus far.

How does that add up to being Vancouver’s most promising youngster?

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The answer, of course, is context, and lots of it. Because, until the NHL gets up and running again, Podkolzin is currently playing in the most competitive hockey league in the world, and he’s doing so as a teenager — one who won’t turn 20 until June of 2021.

Podkolzin’s been seeing KHL time since his draft year, when he played three games for SKA and was held pointless. That same season, he put up five points in 14 games in the Supreme Hockey League (aka the VHL, Russia’s rough equivalent to the AHL) and eight in 12 games in Russia’s top Junior Hockey League (aka the MHL). Between the two leagues, he added six points in 11 playoff games.

Podkolzin, however, has always saved his best for international hockey. In his draft year, he dominated for the U-18 team, with 18 goals and 33 points in 26 games across various tournaments. He also made the Russian World Junior Championship team as a 17-year-old, notching three points in seven games from a depth position.

Following his selection by the Canucks, Podkolzin saw more KHL action in 2019/20, albeit with limited ice-time that saw him post just eight points in 30 games. He matched that point total in just 16 games at the VHL level, and added another four in two quick MHL contests.

Midway through, he returned to the WJC, this time as an alternate captain, and had a strong tournament with five points in seven games as Russia earned a silver medal.

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Which brings us to the 2020/21 campaign.

Aside from that one-game vacation to the VHL, and a very successful trip to the Karjala Cup — which we’ll get to in a minute — Podkolzin has stuck with SKA at the KHL level for the entirety of the season thus far, for better and for worse. A positive of the experience is that Podkolzin is getting an opportunity to play against seasoned professionals on a regular basis, truly the best possible preparation he could receive for an eventual NHL career. A negative, however, is how limited said opportunity has been in terms of actual minutes.

As of this writing, Podkolzin is averaging just 12:04 per game, ranking him 18th overall among forwards who have played for SKA this year. As our own Chris Faber has covered extensively, Podkolzin has been shuffled all over the lineup, moving from the press box, to the fourth line, occasionally all the way up to the first line, but seemingly never onto the powerplay.

Amid whispers of less-than-preferential treatment given to those young players destined to leave the KHL for North America  — keep in mind that Podkolzin turned down a contract extension from SKA this past offseason — it’s been increasingly difficult for Podkolzin to develop any semblance of consistency.

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If any further fuel is needed for the conspiratorial fire, a recent two-point performance from Podkolzin was immediately followed by…a healthy scratch.

And yet, the scouts cannot stop raving about him.

EliteProspects describes him as, “A skilled winger who plays with an edge…[and] combines his fine hockey sense, puck handling and shooting with an aggressive, in-your-face, type of game.”

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Podkolzin demonstrated that in September when he dropped the gloves with, and tossed around, the 23-year-old Nikita Dynyak, a noted KHL antagonist.

Faber has been tracking down Podkolzin’s advanced statline all season long, and this report from September is emblematic of the winger’s KHL season thus far; promising, if not productive:

“With Podkolzin on the ice, SKA had a Corsi for percentage of 78.3%. That’s a +36.6% differential from team shot share to individual attempted shot share for Podkolzin. His line was once again able to control a lot of time in the offensive zone. SKA’s young guns line skated strong through the neutral zone and was ultra-aggressive when they were in their own zone.”

Control is the key idea here, and it’s something that Podkolzin — a true power forward, unlike others who have graced the Canucks’ prospect cupboard in recent years — specializes in. He has the rare combination of strength and skill required to hang onto the puck until an opportunity presents itself, and then to make the most of that opportunity with a brilliant setup or hard charge to the net.

Harman Dayal spoke to the difficulties Podkolzin has experienced thus far, writing “Frankly, Podkolzin’s point totals can’t be dissected without acknowledging the difficulties of his development situation. The powerful right winger averaged less than nine minutes per game in 2019-20 and is clocking in at an average time on ice of 11:58 this year. The uptick in ice time is slight and was forced out of necessity. A number of SKA’s forwards contracted COVID-19 in late September and Podkolzin averaged 17:36 over five games, notching two of his four points this season.

“Russian teams can often be political, so that he rejected an extension and is soon bound for North America is definitely a factor. Why would SKA St. Petersburg — the second deepest team in the KHL — take ice time away from one of its other players and hand it to a prospect they know is leaving at the end of the season?”

All of which made Podkolzin’s sojourn to the Karjala Cup — and his eventual trip to the 2021 WJC — so important. It was the first time this season that he was able to get away from the politics and stringent expectations of SKA and just play hockey again, and the results spoke for themselves.

Typically, nations send their non-NHL national teams to the annual Finnish tournament, but this year Russia decided to send their U-20 team in hopes of tuning up for the WJC. As such, Podkolzin was named captain of the team, and he did not disappoint. Five points in three games later, Podkolzin was lifting the Karjala Cup and presenting it to his teammates.

It’s enough to invoke a sigh of relief among those in the Vancouver fanbase who have been getting antsy about Podkolzin’s development. Not among that crowd, however, is Vancouver GM Jim Benning, who spoke to The Athletic in the wake of the tournament.

“Maybe he’s not getting the ice time with the KHL team but at the Karjala Cup he got ice time and I think it was a good snapshot of what he can do when he’s playing, confident and doing what he’s capable of,” said Benning, “I think it’s good that he went and played and so hopefully he can get back to his team and keep working hard.”

Speaking realistically, there’s no reason to hope for a drastic change in Podkolzin’s ice-time throughout the remainder of his time with SKA, barring significant injury troubles. As such, he’ll struggle to crack 20 points, and there will no doubt be those who question his merits as a prospect because of it.

Ignore them.

Look instead to Podkolzin’s performance at the Karjala Cup, and what we have to assume will be an assertive showing at the WJC in January. Those are far more indicative of the “true” Podkolzin and the sort of player he can be when he’s playing for a coach and team that actually want him to succeed.

And keep in mind that that’s the exact situation Podkolzin will find himself in when he crosses the Pacific at the conclusion of the 2020/21 KHL season and signs with the Canucks, likely joining them for the tail-end of the regular season and possibly even suiting up for the playoffs.

At that point, we have a feeling we won’t need to rely on context anymore when it comes to discussing Podkolzin’s greatness.