Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Analyzing Vasily Podkolzin’s baby steps to becoming an NHL regular with the Canucks
By Michael Liu9 months ago
The sophomore slump kicked in hard for Vasily Podkolzin this season.
A 14-goal, 12-assist campaign in 2021-22 set a decent bar for the Russian to follow up in 2022-23. However, the former 10th-overall selection floundered in his second season, getting healthy scratched and demoted to the bottom 6 before finally being sent down to the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks.
That’s not the end of the story though. Rather than just being buried in the minors, Podkolzin got to work. A stint in the AHL helped him rebuild his confidence with coaches focusing specifically on his development. It looks to have paid off too, with how much better the winger looked in his second run with Vancouver to close off the year.
So how did the 2022-23 season play out for Podkolzin?
There wasn’t a clear picture of where Podkolzin would be to start the season. Elias Pettersson looked to have his wingmen Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko all locked up, while JT Miller, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat formed a pretty decent line on paper. That left the Russian on the outside looking in, starting on the third line and floundering from that point on.
It’s not to say that he wouldn’t be a good fit in a team’s bottom six. A relentless, puck-hounding winger seemed almost perfect in that role to start off the year, with the chance to work his way up the lineup. But the problem was that Podkolzin wasn’t that player to start off the year. He didn’t look particularly menacing on the forecheck, not getting the offence to click even when placed in top 6 situations.
The inconsistency of his play could’ve just been a by-product of the team’s slump out of the gates, but regardless of reason, the result was that Podkolzin only had 3 assists to his name through the first 16 games of the season. That’s not top-10 production, and both he and the team knew that being healthy scratched was not going to do much in turning that around.
A demotion to the AHL was fitting both for performance and development. Podkolzin wasn’t getting key minutes and moments, while his confidence waned from being placed down the lineup and scratched when the team was on a roll. He needed ice time that Vancouver couldn’t provide, while Abbotsford seemed to be the prime place for that to happen.
It wasn’t the easiest to stomach though. “The first two weeks were really hard,” Podkolzin said in an interview with Postmedia during his second call-up. “You start thinking too much. What should I do? What’s happening? I had two ways to go. Give up or work.”
He took some time to adjust to the AHL game as well, looking lost on the ice during his very first shift. Podkolzin had to relearn how to process the game and regain the confidence and motor that made him so successful in his first season. It was probably helpful to have the likes of Henrik and Daniel Sedin guiding him through his stint in the minors.
“They said just play hockey and enjoy it because you’re in the NHL. Stop thinking and just play and play on your instincts,” Podkolzin recalled the Sedins saying to him. “That’s the best for me. I feel more confident and I’m playing harder on the puck.”
Slowly but surely, things began to turn around.
Bull finding his feet
Podkolzin went on a tear in the AHL after a couple of games to get his feet wet. 18 points in 28 games saw the Russian look a lot more like himself, while improving on his game thanks to the focused development he received while in Abbotsford. It earned him another look in the NHL with a call-up in February.
There was a marked improvement in Podkolzin’s play. While the counting stats don’t show anything particularly impressive, down the stretch the winger looked to be much more dynamic. Podkolzin had always been decent in his own end, but the attention to detail and tenacity that he displayed demonstrated a new commitment to being defensively responsible. From getting pucks out of the zone in key moments late in games to getting a couple of small sniffs at penalty kill time on the second unit, there was a lot to like about his approach in the defensive zone.
Offensively, Podkolzin began to drive the play a lot more. While his advanced stats in the first stint up in the NHL weren’t awful, the second stint showed an improvement over pretty much every category. Podkolzin generated about 5 percentage points more in xGF% and HDCF%, demonstrating an uptick in the chances that he created. It wasn’t easy deployment either, most of the time stuck on a line with Sheldon Dries and Vitali Kravstov, with the former probably not returning to the Canucks next season and the latter definitely not. Podkolzin demonstrated that he can drive a line, even if the goals weren’t coming for him right away.
The impressive improvement to his play continued until the end of the season, when Podkolzin suffered a wrist injury that prevented him from joining Abbotsford for their playoff run. It remains to be seen what lasting impacts the injury might have going into training camp, but promising steps were made in cementing a full-time spot for himself in the NHL. The biggest question for Podkolzin now is if he can find the consistency and confidence to continue this run, to fulfill the potential that he was drafted for.
Realistically, Podkolzin would want to feature in this team’s top 6. Perhaps not next season but definitely the year after. Anything else would be a bit of a disappointment considering the draft pedigree and tools that he has at his disposal. Podkolzin has stiff competition thanks to Vancouver’s glut of wingers, with Mikheyev, Hoglander, Garland, Boeser, and Beauvillier all in the mix as of right now. It’s an uphill battle for which the groundwork has already been laid.
The 2022-23 campaign saw Vasily Podkolzin struggle, learn, and get better. It might not be the rapid rise to the top that many wanted out of him, but the Russian has shown the ability and desire to overcome adversity. If Podkolzin can continue to improve and develop from the latter part of the season, then there should be no reason why the Russian can’t be a permanent fixture in the Canucks top 6 for the years to come.
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