Can Vasily Podkolzin be a top-six winger for the Canucks in 2023/24?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
8 months ago
Let’s preface this conversation by stating that, if the question posed by the headline turns out to be a ‘no,’ it’s not the end of the world.
If there’s one thing the Vancouver Canucks aren’t short on, it’s wingers that can play in a scoring role. Just on established pieces alone, they’ve got Andrei Kuzmenko, Brock Boeser, Anthony Beauvillier, Ilya Mikheyev, and Conor Garland. Heck, even Tanner Pearson isn’t too far removed from quality production, and Rick Tocchet believes that Dakota Joshua could score 20 in the right situation.
So, suffice it to say that if Vasily Podkolzin and/or Nils Höglander do not make it into the Canucks’ top-six in 2023/24, the Canucks will still be fine, at least in the short-term.
In the long-term, however? That might be an entirely different question. A quick look at that aforementioned list of established wingers reveals very few who could be considered a true part of the Canucks’ big picture. Kuzmenko, sure. Mikheyev, maybe. Boeser, only if he turns his career all the way around in a hurry.
With that in mind, the Canucks would probably be better off in the long-term if some of those prime scoring minutes started going to their two 22-year-olds, as opposed to players that will be shipped out eventually. And the same can probably be said for the 22-year-olds themselves. We’ve already written about the fact that the Canucks are going to struggle to run three scoring lines in 2023/24, and that they’ll be leaning on their top-six far more heavily this season than last. That means more opportunity for the top-sixers and, if they’re young enough, more opportunity for growth.
But are either Podkolzin or Höglander actually up for said opportunity?
We investigate in a two-part series, starting with Podkolzin.

Vasily Podkolzin: Top-Six?

When the Canucks drafted Podkolzin at 10th overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the idea was certainly that he would eventually develop into a top-six winger, even if that projection were more based on his physical attributes and demonstrable skills than a history of production.
Even back when he was playing in the Russian junior leagues, Podkolzin’s numbers were decidedly less than spectacular, and soon enough he was a teenager playing in the KHL, a notoriously difficult situation to score in.
As a KHL rookie in 2019/20, Podkolzin notched two goals and six assists in 30 games. The year after, that improved only slightly to five goals and six assists in 35 games, though that season also featured a chronic limitation in his minutes over a contract dispute.
Podkolzin performed better internationally, but not by any great leaps and bounds. He captained the 2021 Russian World Junior team and popped in two goals and two assists in seven games.
If there was ever a glimpse to be had of Podkolzin’s top-six potential, it probably came in the 2021 KHL playoffs, where the coaching staff of SKA St. Petersburg decided they needed Podkolzin more than they needed to punish him for not extending his contract.
Through three rounds in perhaps the second-best league in the world, the 19-year-old Podkolzin threw down six goals and five assists across 16 postseason games.
That, more than anything, had folks convinced that Podkolzin could perform at the NHL level. He just seemed to be the sort of player who stepped up to the situation.
But that hasn’t been the case thus far.
Through 118 NHL games across his rookie and sophomore campaigns, Podkolzin has only managed 18 goals and 15 assists for a total of 33 points. This, with an average ice-time of 12:29 and deployment all over the lineup. As a rookie, Podkolzin featured in the top-six frequently alongside the likes of Elias Pettersson and JT Miller. His numbers slipped as a sophomore playing more frequently with centers like Sheldon Dries and the notoriously non-playmaking Bo Horvat.
That led to a demotion to the AHL, where Podkolzin played well, but did not dazzle. In 28 games for Abbotsford, Podkolzin managed seven goals and 11 assists, certainly top-six production at the AHL level, but not anything that had anyone clamouring for a call-up. The results weren’t good enough to be encouraging or bad enough to be discouraging. They were, it’s worth noting, a far bit behind the production of fellow 2019 draftee Nils Höglander, who was also exiled to Abbotsford around the same time. And that might lead some to believe that, when it comes to earning a top-six spot in 2023/24, Höglander now has the leg up. But those who actually watched the games saw Podkolzin take advantage of the lower level of competition to lean into his natural hard-charging style, and start to become the player he’ll need to be to thrive in the big leagues.
But there have also been glimpses of that top-six power forward potential throughout, even at the NHL level. For having played on a couple of fairly weak rosters, Podkolzin’s analytic metrics, which all hover a little below 50%, come off as impressive and indicative of his puck-carrying skills. And when he’s out there with Pettersson and Miller specifically? Well, that’s when Podkolzin’s underlying numbers really shine.
With Höglander facing waivers-related issues, Podkolzin got the call-up in February, not too long after Tocchet had taken over, and that’s when the glimpses started to become more frequent and more tangible.
He only played 92 even-strength minutes on Miller’s wing last season, for example, but those minutes saw them running a Corsi of 59.88% and controlling 55.22% of the scoring chances. Now, that’s not exactly surprising; play with a better center, post better results. But is as at least an encouraging indication that Podkolzin can hang in the top-six, and that’s a notion that is definitely supported by the eye-test.
We’ve all seen the flashes of potential. The rocket of a shot (when he manages to get it off). The way in which Podkolzin can hang onto the puck and protect it with his body. The occasional handles. The burly forechecking.
The reality is that Podkolzin possesses physical gifts that most hockey players simply do not, and that’s granted him the sort of patience that other prospects typically don’t receive. The old adage goes that power forwards take longer to develop, and a power forward is what Podkolzin has the potential to be.
Todd Bertuzzi used to be the gold standard of this trope. He hit the NHL at 20, just like Podkolzin, but didn’t crack 20 goals until the age of 24, after he’d already been traded once. By age 26, Bertuzzi was playing at a point-per-game.
So, Podkolzin’s still got time on his side. But the sooner he gets there, the better, and a top-six opportunity might help get him there. It’s hard to believe, however, that any such opportunity will be handed to him under the watch of head coach Tocchet. The Canucks’ bench-boss has already spoken to the media about Podkolzin’s need to earn his spot in Training Camp, and there’s unlikely to be any free-rides offered.
Fortunately, stepping up in high-pressure situations is kind of Podkolzin’s thing.
If there’s one area in which he is likely to receive a real chance to shine, it might be the power play. Thus far, Podkolzin has scored just two goals and one assist on the man advantage, all coming in his rookie season.
But now the Canucks are without Bo Horvat, their previously most trusty power play shooter. Horvat was famous for standing around in the bumper slot and ripping them home, and despite the repetitiveness of it all, the play seemed to work more often than not.
If the Canucks are in the market for a replacement, the job qualifications are simple: be left-handed, have a powerful shot, and be sturdy enough to not get bumped out of the bumper. And on the current Canucks’ roster, there’s really only one person that fits that bill, and it’s Vasily Podkolzin.
So, a top-six opportunity? That remains something that Podkolzin will have to work for. But more opportunity in general? That seems pretty close to a guarantee. We floated the idea of Podkolzin converting to 3C already, but what we really want for him is just more minutes overall. If improved numbers follow, that will only mean more opportunities for Podkolzin, and it won’t be terribly long before he’s a permanent fixture in the Canucks’ top-six.
The ball is in his court. Or, to avoid mixing sports metaphors, let’s say that the puck is on his stick.
And Podkolzin hates giving up the puck.

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