Canucks prospects to watch: Podkolzin could be among best from 2019 Draft

Vancouver Canucks select Vasily Podkolzin during the first round NHL draft at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Friday, June, 21, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER – When the Vancouver Canucks came home from the 2015 entry draft, not many people outside the player’s family paid much attention to Adam Gaudette.

That was the Connor McDavid-led draft in South Florida where the Canucks snagged Brock Boeser, who had a compelling story as well as enticing ability, 23rd-overall in the first round. It was where general manager Jim Benning traded goalie Eddie Lack and defenceman Kevin Bieksa and took a run at Milan Lucic before the Boston Bruins traded him to Los Angeles. Luckily, the Canucks lost out to the Kings on that one.

Gaudette was just a skinny fifth-round draft pick, a choppy skater coming off a modest season in the United States Hockey League that saw him manage 30 points in 50 games for Cedar Rapids, which is in Iowa.

But then Gaudette went to Northeastern University, and in three seasons added 20 pounds, got faster, led the NCAA in scoring and won the Hobey Baker Award.

And this National Hockey League season, the 149th pick of the 2015 draft produced 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games and was fourth on the Canucks with 2.71 points-per-60-minutes in all situations. At this stage of his career, Gaudette is 32nd in NHL scoring among the 211 players drafted in Sunrise, Fla., five years ago.

Gaudette quickly became an intriguing prospect. All teams have them.

The Canucks’ two best prospects, Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander, are also two of their most interesting considering when they were chosen in the 2019 draft, and where and how they spent their draft-plus-one seasons. But the team has other fascinating prospects drafted a lot lower.

Here are five intriguing players to consider as the suspended NHL season blends into signing season for prospects, and a thumbnail assessment from Benning on where they stand.

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Vasily Podkolzin

RW, 6-1, 192 lbs., 18 years old
Draft: Vancouver, 10th, 2019
2019-20 team: St. Petersburg, KHL
GP: 30 | G: 2 | A: 6 | P: 8

What’s good: Podkolzin is a classic power forward, a six-foot-one, 192-pound bull of a winger strong enough to go through defenders on his way to the net. Were he not still under contract to St. Petersburg of the KHL, he likely would have been picked higher than 10th last June. He has the potential to be one of the best players from that draft.

What’s intriguing: Although he had just two goals in 30 regular-season games in the KHL as an 18-year-old and bounced between three tiers of Russian hockey with St. Petersburg, Podkolzin improved significantly during the year and as a fourth-liner, producing 11 points in his final 17 league and playoff games at the top level. He has leadership qualities and, by all reports, a great attitude and is eager to come to North America when his KHL contract expires after next season.

Benning says: “He’s close to being an NHL player right now because of his size and strength. He’s willing to play a physical game, and he has the hands and vision to play with good players. He plays a 200-foot game. He’s a pretty complete player. He’s got one more year left on his contract, and he’s going to honour that and then we’ll see. I think he’s a guy, with the physical skill set and the size and the strength, that can make the jump.”

Nils Hoglander

LW, 5-9, 190 lbs., 19 years old
Draft: Vancouver, 40th, 2019
2019-20 team: Rögle BK, SHL
GP: 50 | G: 7 | A: 7 | P: 14

What’s good: Hoglander has first-round skill and elusiveness but slipped to the second round due to his five-foot-nine frame. In his second season with Rogle’s SHL team, he had nine goals and 16 points in 41 games in a mostly-third-line role, but was dominant at the world juniors with 11 points in seven games for Sweden.

What’s intriguing: Hoglander competes and plays bigger than his size, going to tough areas to score and create goals. He plays with swagger, demonstrated by his “lacrosse” goals for both Rogle in the SHL, where he embarrassed veteran defenceman Marcus Hogstrom, and the Swedish junior team. He has confidence to match his skill.

Benning says: “First of all, he’s a year older for his draft, so he a little more physically mature and mentally mature. He’s got good hands and skillset, and he protects the puck well. He’s strong for his size. When we get him signed and get him over here and on to the smaller ice, we’ll see where he’s at. But he’s definitely got all the tools to come in and compete in the fall. The way he plays the game and the things he’s good at, we’ll think he’ll make the adjustment.”

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Jack Rathbone

D, 5-10, 176 lbs., 20 years old
Draft: Vancouver, 95th, 2017
2019-20 team: Harvard, NCAA
GP: 28 | G: 7 | A: 24 | P: 31

What’s good: Like Gaudette, Rathbone has far outplayed his draft position in his first two years of college hockey, developing into an offence-generating dynamo with the mobility to cover both ends of the ice. Rathbone had 31 points in 28 games this past season, his second at Harvard, and will decide later this spring whether to sign a professional contract or return to school for his junior year.

What’s intriguing: With a pre-college season remaining after he was drafted, Rathbone chose to play another year at prep school in order to spend more time with his brother who has autism rather than upgrading to the USHL. His maturity – Rathbone turns 21 in May – has helped him. A lot of other NHL teams have noticed this natural leader, but the Canucks are keeping their fourth-round pick, believing Rathbone could be playing in Vancouver within two years.

Benning says: “I like Jack a lot. He’s an excellent skater and he’s aggressive with the puck. We think with development he can be a dynamic, real good player for us. He’s one guy who when I’m talking to other teams, his name always comes up. The type of seasons he’s had the last couple of years, everybody’s aware of his game and what he can do. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, obviously, so they’re going to take some time here in the next month or two and decide what they want to do.”

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Carson Focht

C, 6-1, 181 lbs., 20 years old
Draft: Vancouver, 133rd, 2019
2019-20 team: Calgary Hitmen A, WHL
GP: 61 | G: 32 | A: 24 | P: 56

What’s good: The two-way centre scored 32 goals in 61 games this season for the Hitmen, although his overall offence was flat compared to his draft year (56 points in 61 games vs. 64 points in 68 games). At six-foot-one and 182 pounds, Focht is a good skater who improved his 200-foot game and may be ready next season for the American League, where the Utica Comets are short of centres.

What’s intriguing: Focht was 19 when he was drafted, a late-bloomer who nearly quadrupled his WHL points from the previous season. He was one of the draft picks who stood out at both the Canucks rookie camp last summer and the early stages of training camp last fall. Focht competes and may be able to adapt his game to build a pro career from the bottom of the lineup, working his way up.

Benning says: “He was one of the guys that caught our eye (at camp). He was involved in the play all of the time, whether it was with the puck and making plays or without the puck and defensively. We think he can develop into a third- or fourth-line, you know, hard-working player. He can kill penalties and block shots and play good down low, but he still has skill and can make plays with the puck. We’re just waiting to see what happens with the rest of this year, but he’s a guy we’d like to sign and get into the fold next year.”

Nikita Tryamkin

D, 6-8, 254 lbs., 25 years old
Draft: Vancouver, 66th, 2014
2019-20 team: Yekaterinburg, KHL
GP: 58 | G: 2 | A: 9 | P: 11

What’s good: Tryamkin is six-foot-eight and 254 pounds and skates well enough to play hockey. Beyond that, we’re not sure what, if anything, is good.

What’s intriguing: Tryamkin is six-foot-eight and 254 pounds and skates well enough to play hockey. Had the third-round pick from Benning’s first draft chosen to stay with the Canucks after a solid rookie season in 2016-17 (66 games, nine points), the Russian could be moving into his third NHL contract by now and making at $2-4 million per season.

Instead, he was unhappy with the situation in Vancouver, darted home to Yekaterinburg, where he was unhappy there, and now badly wants another chance in North America. No other NHL teams have inquired about him, but the Canucks never forgot him.

Benning says: “I get that the league has sped up the last three years, but with his size and his skating ability for a guy as big as he is, I think he can make the adjustment. He got married the year before he came over, and it was a big adjustment for him not only coming over here and playing, but it was an adjustment for him off the ice, too. Like, it was a big step for him. Now they’re a little bit older and he wants to come back, so we’ll see where it goes.”

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