We've hit that stage of the offseason where the news cycle has slowed to a trickle, so this seems like a good opportunity to put the spotlight on the Vancouver Canucks' most recent crop of drafted players.
We'll start at the top—with 10th overall pick Vasily Podkolzin.
Podkolzin turned 18 three days after he was drafted, on June 24—so he's one month younger than Jack Hughes. He was ranked second among European skaters in both the midterm and final rankings, behind Kaapo Kakko. At the NHL Scouting Combine in June, he was listed at 6-feet-1, 190 pounds, according to The Hockey Writers. His actual measurement: 6-feet-0.75, 196 pounds — fitting that he added a bit of bulk considering he's pegged as a big-bodied power forward. That extra weight seems to have been muscle, too—as we'll see a bit later in this blog.
Elite Prospects describes him 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 very difficult to play against and has the tools to be a high scoring player."
"Podkolzin is a fantastic team player," director of NHL European Scouting Goran Stubb said before the draft. "During the season he also showed that he is an excellent two-way player. He's very responsible in his defensive play. He's a power forward, an excellent skater."
TSN's Craig Button sounded a warning bell on Podkolzin when he dropped him all the way to No. 13 in the third edition of his mock draft in early May — not long after Podkolzin had a so-so 1-3-4 performance in seven games while serving as captain for the silver medal-winning Russian team at the World U18 Championship in Sweden in April.
Though Podkolzin was rumoured to have been battling injury and fatigue at the end of a long season during the tournament, this was Button's assessment:
“Podkolzin just doesn’t have as much high-end skill as others at the top of this class have demonstrated," Button said. "He’s more of a bulldog-type player. He might end up being a lot like Lawson Crouse."
Certainly, his performance at U18s didn't match his breakout, which came at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup last August. Also serving as Russia's captain at that tournament, Podkolzin finished with a tournament-high eight goals and tied with Alexis Lafreniere with 11 points. After losing to Sweden in the semifinal at that tournament, the Russians beat the U.S. by a score of 5-4 to claim bronze.
Podkolzin's performance in August was strong enough to earn him a roster spot at the World Junior Championship last Christmas—a rarity for a draft-eligible player in the Russian system. Podkolzin had three assists in seven games, and was used in a pretty wide variety of situations, especially defensively. He collected another bronze medal after the Russians beat Switzerland 5-2 to close out the tournament.
At the Combine at the end of May, Podkolzin did pretty well, with four Top 25 results. He finished 16th in Anaerobic Fitness - peak power output, 23rd in body fat (8.49 percent), 21st in right hand grip strength and 12th in standing long jump.
By draft day, Button had moved him back to 10th on his draft board—which is exactly where the Canucks selected him.
The big caveat surrounding Podkolzin going into the draft was the fact that he's under contract to SKA St. Petersburg for the next two seasons, so he won't be able to play in North America until at least 2021-22. I'm not too worried about that—he has said that his goal is to reach the NHL as soon as possible, and two years' development time should establish a good base to his game before he comes over.
These days, there are only a handful of top Russian prospects who don't make the jump in pretty short order. The New York Rangers took Vitali Kravtsov at nine in 2018 and he's expected to take a run at making their team this fall. Most notably, the St. Louis Blues are still waiting on 2017 first-rounder Klim Kostin and the Minnesota Wild have yet to ink Kiril Kaprizov, who they drafted in the fifth round in 2015.
In today's Kucherov/Panarin era, I think Russian players see the NHL door open wider than ever, especially for top-end talent looking to make big bucks and build a global legacy for themselves. Podkolzin seems like a kid who will embrace that spotlight.
He has been on the ice over the past week at the Sochi Hockey Open, playing with the Russian "Olympic" team—a select group of younger players that also includes Vancouver's sixth-rounder from 2018, Artem Manukyan. They went 2-2 in their four games against KHL opponents, beating Avangard and Lokomotiv before losing to HC Sochi and Dimano Riga.
I haven't been able to find any box scores for the games, but you should be able to find some clips of Podkolzin in action on Twitter.
I did find this tournament recap, with a little help from Google Translate. Sounds like the kids did pretty well based on the headline "The Russian Olympic team is tearing the leaders of the KHL. Even Canadians are in awe."
Presumably translated from English to Russian and back again, here's what Omsk coach Bob Hartley had to say about the Olympic team: "I want to note the large selection of talented players that Russia has. This is a hockey power, and I have no doubt that the Olympic team would be competitive in the KHL. This is one of the fastest teams I've seen in a very long time. Defenders play great, support the attack, move the puck well. Their attackers are fast, and the goalkeeper makes key saves."
The article continues...
"But the average age of this team is less than 21 years old! Denisenko, Romanov, Podkolzin, Manukyan, Kochetkov and others - many of this squad played at the past or the year before last youth world championships. It is clear that this is a summer tournament, which the teams came together in the midst of pre-season training. Exhausting workouts, which sometimes end late in the evening, are not the most optimal formulations, not the most optimal form. But everyone is in the same conditions, and so far the collections are the best team of the tournament, having beaten the Vanguard first, and today Lokomotiv. Of course, not without good luck - ricochets are playing for them in full swing, but are they lucky for those who are lucky? Very good for yesterday's juniors."
A couple of reminders: Podkolzin wasn't at the World Junior Summer Showcase last week because Russia doesn't participate in that event, but he's still eligible for the next two World Junior Championships and is expected to play a big role this winter in the Czech Republic. Also, Podkolzin didn't play in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup this week because that's a U18 tournament — he has aged out of that one.
After bouncing between three different leagues in the Russian hockey system last season, Podkolzin is expected to be a full-time member of SKA's main team in the KHL this season. We'll have more clips coming very soon—the KHL regular season kicks off on September 1.