Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Vasily Podkolzin’s five point weekend renews optimism for NHL call-up this season
By Dave Hall22 days ago
As the Vancouver Canucks enjoy their spot perched atop the NHL standings, discussions about their options ahead of the trade deadline have begun to ramp up across various outlets.
With the team positioned as buyers for the first time in many moons, a recurring question has begun to creep into discussions oh how “all in” the team should be.
Rather than make a big splash in the trade market with a pricey deadline rental, is the team better served looking internally for options to improve their roster? And is Vasily Podkolzin the answer?
The 22-year-old prospect with two years of NHL experience certainly profiles like a player who can endear himself to the Tocchet brand of hockey.
But in a year chock-full of ups and downs, the answer isn’t quite as black and white as one might think.
After 118 games split between three head coaches over two seasons in the NHL, Podkolzin was relegated to the AHL following a less-than-stellar training camp. After a shaky sophomore season under Bruce Boudreau and Rick Tocchet, the best approach to stabilizing his development was through Jeremy Colliton and the Abbotsford Canucks.
His impact was immediate and promising in the early chapters of his AHL tenure.
He racked up seven points in his first eight games, playing with grit, confidence, and the kind of skill and prowess expected of a top-10 draft pick with NHL experience in his third pro season. His seamless transition to the American League gave promise that his stint in the minors would be much shorter than expected.
Then came the concussion.
On October 25th, just one night following the terrific overtime-winning sequence above, Podkolzin was rag-dolled into the corner by Colorado’s Keaton Middleton in a sequence not dissimilar from the Mike Matheson hit on Elias Pettersson during his rookie season. The frightening head injury sidelined Podkolzin for nearly a month.
Returning from such an event is a hurdle significant for even the toughest players, and Podkolzin was no exception.
The Russian forward faced the daunting task of picking up where he left off, finding the same scoring consistency and, more importantly, confidence in playing his hard-nosed game. The lengthy recovery took a noticeable toll on his game, undoing most progress made early in the season. It took him four games to get back on the scoresheet, and he has struggled to produce consistently ever since.
From the day of his return until the end of December, he had accumulated a modest three goals and nine points through 15 games. While Podkolzin wasn’t playing poorly, per se, his game lacked consistency, and you could sense his hesitancy to drive toward the net or go hard into the corner—which, given the severity of the injury suffered, is fair enough!
As the calendar turned to the new year, Podkolzin’s struggles seemed to compound. Although there were flashes, his game lacked rhythm, which translated into poor point production. The slow return to normalcy and the early New Year struggles had effectively eliminated any hopes of a late-season promotion to contribute to the big club’s playoff push.
Before the team travelled to Bakersfield this past weekend, January saw him collect just two goals and two assists across ten games, mirroring Abbotsford’s plummeting position in the team standings.
Fortunately, for all his struggles this season, shooting the puck has not been one of them. Pre-injury and every game since returning to the lineup, Podkolzin has been shooting at will. He’s the only Abbotsford Canuck to crack over 100 shots this season (128 total). He’s recorded four or more shots on goal 17 times and even put up a remarkable ten-spot against the Ontario Reign ahead of the Christmas break. Podkolzin sits seventh in the AHL by total shots, all while still occasionally executing his trademark bulldozer drives toward the net. That propensity to shoot and willingness to go to the tough areas of the ice is precisely why finding consistency in his game is so intriguing.
As mentioned, the pieces have been there sporadically since before the head injury, but putting it all together has been seldom seen in the aftermath.
That is, until this past weekend when Podkolzin strung together his most dominant performances of the season, coming out of the final back-to-back of January swinging.
And, in this case, quite literally.
From a number’s perspective, he outdid his entire monthly point total in just two games, putting up three goals and two assists, thrusting his name back into the spotlight with a bang.
It began on Friday, where Podkolzin stood out as a bright spot despite the team suffering a 4-3 overtime loss.
He kicked things off early in the first period, in his usual spot along the half wall for the team’s dismal power play, ranked dead-last in the AHL. Taking a tremendous saucer feed from Max Sasson, Podkolzin demonstrated a confident juke before powering a snapshot past Jack Campbell to break his four-game pointless skid.
In the same period, Podkolzin replaced veteran center John Stevens in the faceoff circle, winning the puck back to Filip Johansson, who caught the goaltender off guard with a wrister through traffic that equalized the game at three apiece.
With the primary assist on Johansson’s goal, Podkolzin posted his first multi-point game in over eight matches and just his second in the month of January. True to form, he punctuated his most standout performance of the month by leading all players in the game with five shots on net.
Until Saturday, that is.
Game two of the weekend miniseries was the Vasily Podkolzin show, and he kicked it off just minutes into the opening frame with a flurry of action.
Tempers flared early in the game, and Podkolzin didn’t shy away from an invitation to scrap, dropping the gloves against 6-foot-4, 215-pound Raphael Lavoie in a spirited bout.
As a result of the fight, Lavoie left the game and has since gone for X-rays.
Podkolzin, on the other hand, returned from his five-minute punishment and continued to steal the spotlight, notching his second power-play goal in as many nights with a powerful one-timer from the top of the circles.
Amidst a year of ups and downs, one notable surprise has been Podkolzin’s knack for rifling shots from this spot at the right circle. While he has always been a plus-rated shooter, his newfound willingness to shoot has added an intriguing dimension to his game and seen him anchor the power play as the first unit’s triggerman.
He wasn’t done there, though.
In the next period, he scored yet another power-play goal. His third in as many nights was assisted by Aatu Räty, who set him up for an easy wide-open one-timer past Bakersfield’s Olivier Rodrigue.
Podkolzin capped off his resurgent weekend with a secondary assist on Max Sasson’s power play goal in overtime, completing his first Gordie Howe Hat-Trick of his young career and giving him his first three-point game of the season.
Unsurprisingly, Podkolzin rightfully earned the game’s top star selection and was duly recognized as one of the AHL’s top three stars of the evening.
This weekend serves as a tantalizing reminder of the dynamic force Podkolzin can truly be when he puts it all together. His dominant play in back-to-back games raised considerable optimism for his future within the organization. Podkolzin showed that he possesses the ability to influence games at the AHL level single-handedly. The challenge lies in repeating these impactful performances beyond this past weekend.
With that, we bring it back to the initial question: Is the club better served looking for help internally instead of spending big at the trade deadline?
With Podkolzin, until he can consistently deliver such clutch performances on a nightly/semi-nightly basis, then the answer is probably no. For a considerable run, pinning the club’s Stanley Cup aspirations on the call-up of a forward who has historically struggled with the opportunity presented to him at the NHL level, albeit in small doses, is unfair to both the team and to Podkolzin.
And that answer isn’t the worst outcome for Podkolzin, given how hard the road has been up until this point of the season and how he stands to benefit significantly from logging top-line minutes in Abbotsford.
While there has not been enough consistency to warrant an immediate NHL top-six spot, this past weekend was a fantastic first step toward a resurgent second half of the season for Podkolzin, hopefully featuring much more consistent play from him as the Abbotsford Canucks position themselves for a Calder Cup Playoff run.
For now, the AHL continues to provide an ideal environment for Podkolzin to refine his skills, build confidence, and further develop the elements of his game that will eventually help him translate seamlessly to an NHL position.
If all goes right, hopefully, sooner than later.
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