Canucks’ Podkolzin: Drafting a Russian Bulldog

In a daring move, given rumors that his job is on the line, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning chose Vasili Podkolzin as the team’s 10th pick in the NHL Entry Draft. We’ll have to wait two years to know, but did the Canucks just draft Elias Pettersson’s next right-winger? If so, look out NHL.

Podkolzin was available because he remains under contract in Russia for two more seasons. However, Benning was looking to the Canucks’ future and, like me, must have been asking himself whether, in three seasons, this choice at pick #10 might have the potential to become part of the best line in Canucks history?

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Although he’s only 17 years old, this young right-winger played part of last season for St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). That’s quite an accomplishment. By doing so, he became the first player born in the 21st century to play in the KHL.

What Is Podkolzin’s Experience?

Podkolzin’s experience means that, when he comes to the Canucks for the 2021-22 season, he should hit the ice flying. He’ll be ready for prime time. He played Russian professional hockey for SKA-1946 of the Russian Junior Hockey League. On Nov. 12, 2018, he made his KHL debut with SKA Saint Petersburg. He split last season between three Russian leagues: the MHL (junior), VHL (Supreme, second highest level in Russia), and the KHL (the highest level). He played well at all three levels.

Most of his time was spent at Russia’s second level, where he scored two goals and five points in 14 games. The VHL is Russia’s version of the AHL. What’s special about Podkolzin is that he’s been playing with older, far more experienced players.

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Undoubtedly Benning had seen Podkolzin play because the 6-foot-1, 196-pound winger was a member of Russia’s team that won bronze at the World Juniors in Vancouver last December and January.

In 2018, Podkolzin also was captain of the bronze-medal winning Team Russia in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. In the bronze medal game against Team USA, Podkolzin scored a hat trick in a 5–4 victory. He led the tournament in scoring with eight goals, three assists and 11 total points in five games.

What Kind of a Player is Podkolzin?

Podkolzin is a left-hand shot who’s known as a fearless offensive player. That he fell to the number 10 has more to do with his contract than his skill. He was ranked as the number two European skater on the NHL Central Scouting prospect list.

Podkolzin is an elite-level talent who gets in the faces of opponents. In 2019, Elite Prospects lauded his ability as a “skilled winger who plays with an edge. Podkolzin combines his fine hockey sense, puck handling and shooting with an aggressive, in-your-face, type of game. He competes hard, is difficult to play against and has the tools to be a high scoring player.”

Along with being a solid scorer, he’s also a great draft pick for the Canucks because of his bulldog nature. Although, I’m engaging in future fantasies of Canucks hockey, Podkolzin plays with the kind of edge that would create space for Pettersson. Furthermore, given his ability to finish, he gives Pettersson an outlet that benefits the young Swede’s on-ice vision and passing ability. I can only think Benning shares my vision of a possible Pettersson-Podkolzin future pairing.

That Podkolzin will be playing two more seasons in the KHL is not the end of the world for the Canucks. Surely, he’ll benefit from the elite competition where he should be able to refine his offensive zone entry, stick handling, and his ability to respond to the speedy NHL game that awaits him with the Canucks.

He’s a physical player, even against older players. He’s loaded with talent, all of which he will hone playing in mother Russia. In many ways, his experience there will allow him to come to North America and the Canucks even more prepared than if he played with the Utica Comets for two seasons.

Unless some deal is reached, Podkolzin won’t be playing professional hockey in North America until the 2021-22 season. Drafting him was a gutsy move by Benning. Talk after the 2018-19 season ended was that his job might be on the line if the team didn’t improve – and soon. Benning chose the future. I respect that.

What Do Hockey Pundits Say?

Coming into the draft, many hockey pundits ranked Podkolzin highly. Here are some of their notes.

“Podkolzin checks all the intangible blocks, as he can be counted on to address a variety of his coach’s concerns. What separates him from all the other “toolsy” forwards is that he can either create or finish plays while travelling at maximum speed, and his strong balance and stickhandling seem to convince defenders to back off more than they should. Podkolzin is effective both in open ice and during trench warfare, and he’s capable of completing on-the-tape passes that lead directly to quality chances near the net..” – Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst

Vasily Podkolzin of SKA St. Petersburg
Vasily Podkolzin of SKA St. Petersburg (photo courtesy SKA)

“An absolute pit bull. Podkolzin offers high-end offensive awareness, lightning quick hands and a confrontational style. Despite some muted point totals coming from his club team, he’s made a habit of showing up in a big way on the international stage. A potential high-end producer in the NHL. – Cam Robinson, Dobber Prospects

“Podkolzin is very skilled and can make the flashy plays to deke defenders, but he rarely does that off a standstill or along the walls. Instead, Podkolzin is typically full speed ahead to the net. He’s also a very good playmaker and finisher who can take advantage of space if defenders give it to him by making a pass or sniping from a distance. He’s a fine/good skater but hustles so hard that he looks like he’s always going fast. _(from ‘Pronman: 2019 NHL Draft midseason rankings’, The AthleticNHL – 1/29/19)

Podkolzin Pick Was Benning Swinging for the Fences

What impresses me about Benning’s draft pick was that he didn’t play it safe. He might have gone for a safer pick, a player who might join the team much sooner. Instead, he chose a player who probably has two more seasons before even wearing a Canucks uniform.

General manager Jim Benning
General manager Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks.
(Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

By picking Podkolzin, the Canucks picked the prospect with the highest ceiling just like they did two years ago with the Pettersson pick. He might have been the third best player in the draft, and he’s now a Canuck.

I encourage other Canucks fans to be patient; this draft pick might turn out to be a steal for the team.