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

How and why Vasily Podkolzin could come out of training camp on the Canucks’ first line

Quite the title.

Talk about pressure, eh?

The Canucks’ top prospect is coming to Vancouver this fall and most who cover or follow the sport of hockey will say that it is too far out of the realm of possibility to believe that a KHL bottom-six player can jump into a first-line winger role for an NHL team.

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For Vasily Podkolzin and the Canucks, it’s possible.

Last season, the Canucks needed to find a player to fit in their top-six. Many believed it was going to be Jake Virtanen or Tyler Motte while a minority of fans believed that Nils Höglander was the right man for the job. Many thought it was going to be a tough task for Höglander to even crack the NHL roster as we approached training camp.

After a handful of practices and a couple of intrasquad games, it was a sure bet that Höglander was not only going to make the Canucks out of camp but he was going to be on Bo Horvat’s wing, playing second-line minutes.

Höglander was a highly-touted prospect when he came over to North America as a fresh 20-year-old who had just finished playing 23 games in the Swedish Hockey League at the end of 2020.

His motor and puck skills made him an excellent fit on Horvat’s wing and the rest is history. Höglander was 86th in the NHL for five-on-five points per 60 minutes and only trailed Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser on the Canucks in that category. This is all after putting up 14 points in his 23 SHL games. He wasn’t tearing up the SHL (though he did score some beautiful goals and took home his third consecutive SHL goal of the year honour.)

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The rookie came in and made a big impact on the Canucks and Podkolzin has the potential to be an even bigger difference maker.

Since the 2019 NHL draft, the Canucks’ top two prospects were Podkolzin and Höglander. If you look back at every single prospect ranking that had both of the young studs on their list, Podkolzin has been ranked above Höglander on every single list.

This isn’t by accident. Podkolzin is the bigger, stronger player with a motor that matches or surpasses Höglander’s already impressive effort level.

As for his NHL readiness, the best part of Podkolzin’s game will be his tenacious forechecking and quick decision-making. He is able to create scoring chances in the blink of an eye and if he were to have two strong scorers as his linemates, he has a chance to be a point producer right from day one in the NHL.

There are many who will say that his adjustment will be a tough one and while there’s some truth to that, the KHL is still the second-best hockey league in the world and Podkolzin didn’t just play in the KHL — he was a star in it.

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Say what you want about the ice time that he received and the low point totals, the KHL broadcasts loved Podkolzin. Everyone knew he was a teenager playing in a men’s league and he has had the spotlight on him for a few years as the next great Russian hockey star.

The Canucks have a couple of options with J.T. Miller this coming season. One of those options is to move him to the third line centre role and attempt to create three lines that can score goals and drive play on a nightly basis. If the Canucks move Miller to the 3C, there is a massive opening on The Lotto Line as Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser will need a left-winger.

If you take Miller off of the first line, the Canucks can go one of three ways.

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They can sign a free agent with the little cap space they have; they can move one of Tanner Pearson, Nils Höglander, or Tyler Motte up the lineup; or they can try the 20-year-old Russian rookie on a line with Pettersson and Boeser.

Some of the things that Miller does so well will be replaced by the substitution of Podkolzin. Both are excellent on the forecheck, both make good passes in the offensive zone and both are great at transitioning pucks from the defensive zone to the offensive zone as wingers.

Podkolzin lacks the shooting ability that Miller possesses but a lot of Podkolzin’s game is similar to Miller’s.

Putting Podkolzin on the first line is a big ask of the 20-year-old. He would be facing the opposition’s top defence pairings while getting tough matchups against other team’s top-six lines.

 

As the Canucks will look to spread out their scoring with Miller as a 3C, the door is open for Podkolzin to slide into a top-line role that some believe he will never amount to. Many analysts have said that though he is a highly rated prospect, Podkolzin doesn’t look to be a top-line calibre player and a lot of that comes from him not being given the chance to be a top-line player in the KHL. He rarely saw time on the power play and that showed with his 22 points in 51 KHL games this year.

He didn’t put up the point totals at the World Juniors that make you believe he is a superstar but was incredibly snakebitten at times in that tournament from his teammates not being unable to finish.

Podkolzin exploded in the KHL playoffs and led his team with six goals and 11 points in 16 games including some massively clutch goals along the way.

Starting him slowly in the NHL is the safer route for sure. There’s good reason to believe that Podkolzin should start on a third line and work his way into the top-six. He rarely played top-six minutes in the KHL, with him only getting 15 or more minutes of ice time in 16 of 51 KHL games this past year.

It’s a lot to ask of Podkolzin to have him slide onto the top line but he has been the Canucks’ top prospect for a reason and he has 88 KHL games under his belt. The NHL isn’t going to shock him like a player making the jump from junior hockey or the NCAA. He’s been in and around the best organization in the second-best professional hockey league in the world for the past three years and is now ready for his next challenge.

SKA St. Petersburg may have not played him as much as Canucks fans have hoped for but their training and specialty coaching is near the top in the world for hockey development.

The Canucks’ current roster construction opens the door for Podkolzin to play on their first line on day one of training camp in a similar way that Höglander did with the second line. Podkolzin’s effort level is so high and his playmaking skills are severely underrated. He has a chance to shock everyone and find himself playing on a line with the Canucks’ two best scoring forwards right from the get-go at this year’s training camp.

Podkolzin will need to be the hardest working player on that line to find a fit. He will have to be physical, stick up for his teammates, skate hard on every shift, and think the game at a high level to play alongside Pettersson and Boeser. It’s a lot to ask of the 20-year-old but this trio has to be an option for Travis Green if moving Miller to the third line is a serious consideration for the club.

In a similar way to Höglander, Podkolzin is going to look like a much better offensive player when he plays with linemates who have NHL-level finishing. Let’s not forget that Höglander was playing third-line minutes in the SHL before he came over and I’d say that the SHL is a lesser league than the KHL. Podkolzin was playing with fourth-line players in the KHL and was told to get the puck in deep and make way for the veteran KHL players to score the goals.

It wouldn’t shock anyone to see Podkolzin get the call to play on one of the top-six lines at some point this season but from day one, it would definitely be a sign of a boatload of confidence from Green in the talented rookie.

Green showed a lot of confidence in Höglander because he looked the part in training camp.

Could Podkolzin earn that same level of confidence with an excellent showing at this fall’s training camp?

Only time will tell.