Canucks fans have gotten pretty accustomed to watching highlight-filled rookie seasons, so you’d forgive some folks for thinking Vasily Podkolzin’s start to his NHL career has been quiet by comparison.
The 20-year-old Russian has just two goals on the year so far, and has often found himself at the bottom of Travis Green’s depth chart as he grows more accustomed to North American ice. Until yesterday’s game versus Nashville, Podkolzin’s ice time had reached double digits just twice, with his season-high 12 minutes coming in Buffalo on October 19.
And yet, game by game, Podkolzin appears to be improving across the board. Early in the preseason, the faster NHL pace was forcing Podkolzin into rushed decisions. Compare that to last night’s outing against the Predators, where he played 10:54 and put together some of the Canucks’ best shifts of the night — including a prime scoring chance that only a red-hot Juuse Saros could’ve stopped.
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With the play he’s been offering the Canucks of late, and the rest of the offence’s recent scoring struggles, it’s time for the Canucks’ coaching staff to try out Podkolzin in some bigger roles.
Just about every Canucks rookie forward to walk through Green’s dressing room has been given the same treatment as Podkolzin during the first quarter of the season: sheltered bottom six minutes as they ease into playing an NHL role with regular defensive responsibilities. Only Nils Höglander has truly avoided this form of freshman baptism, after a terrific scoring start last season playing alongside Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson.
But Podkolzin differs in an important way from other recent first years; his defensive game is arguably his strongest skill early on. According to Natural Stat Trick, Podkolzin ranks second in Expected Goals For percentage among all Canucks forwards at even strength at 48.31, making him one of the better Vancouver players at squashing opposing scoring chances and turning them into a Canucks chance at the other end. 
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While his smaller workload may be inflating those totals slightly, Podkolzin is also passing the eye test in his own end so far. A lot of that is due to his work along the boards, using his size to regularly win puck battles and finding the smartest way out of the zone, either with a quick chip over the blue line or a quick pass to a streaking teammate.
Podkolzin’s hard-nosed work ethic has benefited him greatly in the offensive zone as well. In the Canucks’ 2-1 loss to Philly last week, one of Vancouver’s best late chances to tie came after Podkolzin hounded Justin Braun and Ivan Provorov into giving him the puck before centring it for Nils Höglander.
As his offensive game rounds into place, it feels like only a matter of time before Podkolzin gets an opportunity in the one place a change is most needed: the power play. So far Travis Green has yet to give Podkolzin a proper shot on any special teams unit, and with the Canucks’ man advantage desperate to push themselves out of 25th in the NHL, that line of thinking might change in the form of some chances on the second power play unit, where the bumper spot would likely suit his game perfectly.
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Not wanting to rush young guns into high-pressure situations is a wise direction to take by any coaching staff, and Vasily Podkolzin certainly isn’t ready for star billing just yet. But at the rate his game is improving, Podkolzin is ready for some larger responsibilities with the Canucks right now.