VANCOUVER – Since Pavel Bure walked out on the Vancouver Canucks 21 years ago to force a trade, Russian hockey players and the National Hockey League team have gone together on the West Coast like oil spills and orcas.
So when Canuck senior advisor Stan Smyl stepped to the Rogers Arena microphone Friday night and announced to an excited, expectant “home” crowd that the team’s first pick, No. 10 in the NHL Draft, was Vasily Podkolzin, the reaction was, well, muted.
It’s not that the Russian power forward can’t turn into a good player in Vancouver some time after he completes the final two years on his contract with SKA St. Petersburg. But it took a few seconds to process that the organization had skipped past a bunch of high-scoring prospects to select a player from a country that has been a wasteland for Canuck draft picks for two decades.
Even on the rare instances when the Canucks have connected on Russians, like third-round pick Nikita Tryamkin in general manager Jim Benning’s first draft in 2014, like second-rounder Artem Chubarov in 1998 — and, really, there was no one in between – the players couldn’t wait to return to Russia to play in the Kontinental League after successfully starting their NHL careers in Vancouver.
As they begin celebrating their 50 years in the NHL, the Canucks on Friday drafted a Russian in the first round for the first time. They could have chosen American power forward Matthew Boldy, or tiny 58-goal scorer Cole Caufield or Victoria Grizzlies Junior-A scoring machine Alex Newhook.
But Benning took the six-foot-one Podkolzin, a first-round wildcard who divided last season between three levels of hockey with St. Petersburg, but plays a robust game and possesses huge upside. The analytics community likes him. Canuck historians, not so much.
Cultural profiling, of course, is as unfair to Podkolzin as it is to most people. Not every Scottish sportswriter, for instance, is pasty, ill-tempered and cheap.
Podkolzin is unattached to the Canucks’ past and bears no responsibility for it. And through an interpreter – the Canucks’ long-time Russian scout Sergei Chibisov – he said the right things about wanting to be an NHL player and helping Vancouver win. Tryamkin said the same things five years ago.
“He’s a good overall player,” Chibisov said, speaking for himself, not Podkolzin. “He works hard. He does have leadership qualities. He’s strong on the puck, along the boards and in the corners. He can shoot and he can make a play. And all the boys he plays with, they all like him. He’s a good team leader.”
Podkolzin, who starred at the Hlinka under-18 tournament and made the Russian team for the world juniors in Vancouver at Christmastime, bounced between three club teams last season. He played at the junior level, the KHL and the Russian second division.
“Vasily says it wasn’t hard from a physical point of view, it was hard psychologically,” Chibisov said in translation to a question about Podkolzin’s fractured year. “He hopes these (next) two years he’s going to play in Russia, he will get stronger. He will be more a man.
“Vasily says it is hard to express his feelings now. He is so excited. He hopes that in two years from now, he will come to Vancouver and help the team win. Vasily says he can do whatever he will be asked to do.”
Had Podkolzin not been contractually obligated in Russia another two seasons, he likely would have been chosen higher than 10th on Friday.
But his selection by the Canucks had a feeling of anti-climax after a draft day of rumours that included reports that Benning was pursuing a trade for Colorado Avalanche offensive defenceman Tyson Barrie, a 27-year-old from Victoria who Denver general manager Joe Sakic almost certainly will move.
Sakic used the fourth pick Friday to take the best defenceman in the draft, Vancouver Giant Bowen Byram, thickening the crop of excellent young blueliners in Colorado and thickening the plot for a Barrie trade to the Canucks.
Since Benning was not going into his own draft without a first-round pick, Friday wasn’t much of a pressure point in whatever discussions may be ongoing with the Avalanche. There’s plenty of time between now and October to make a deal, but a lot of teams will be interested in Barrie and the player won’t come cheap in any sense.
After a career-best 59 points last season, Barrie has one year and $5.5 million remaining on his contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. His next contract could be for $8 million (or more) per year, which could complicate things for Benning, who knows Canuck rookie-of-the-year Elias Pettersson and super-prospect Quinn Hughes may require massive paydays when their entry-level contracts expire in 2021.
There’s also the size-bias question about how many five-foot-10 defencemen one NHL team can accommodate. The Canucks already have Hughes and Troy Stecher.
Vancouver has eight more selections, three of them in the sixth round, on the second day of the draft Saturday.