VANCOUVER – Even after the most disappointing season in a decade for the Vancouver Canucks, the promise on the horizon is still visible.
While it’s true another playoff collapse by the Toronto Maple Leafs lifted spirits for some fans on the West Coast – not me; I’m just saying – more excitement was rekindled this week when the Canucks signed Russian prospect Vasily Podkolzin to an entry-level contract.
The 10th pick of the 2019 draft, whose selection by the Canucks in their own arena caused a muted response from the home crowd that made the smattering of boos more audible, developed the last two seasons in Russia into a two-way tank of a power winger.
Podkolzin probably would have been drafted several spots higher had he not had two years remaining on his Kontinental Hockey League contract with St. Petersburg, but his eagerness to play in the National Hockey League was evident on draft day even through an interpreter.
After his press conference, Podkolzin was introduced to the Canucks’ hockey-operations staff. His limited English made conversation difficult but there was a lot of smiling. And when general manager Jim Benning excused himself by telling Podkolzin he’d see him in two years, the Russian nodded and confirmed with an enthusiastic “yes.”
Two years will soon be up and Podkolzin will soon be on the Canucks. No one wants to simply bestow an NHL roster spot on him, but the left-shooting right winger with the formidable engine would have to play himself off the Canucks at training camp.
Benning’s second pick in 2019 was a hurricane of a forward named Nils Hoglander, who just finished his rookie season after making the NHL as a 20-year-old straight out of Sweden, then leading Vancouver in play-driving while finishing with 13 goals and 27 points in 56 games.
Hoglander arrived in the NHL the year after Calder Trophy runner-up Quinn Hughes, who followed Canucks Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson, who showed up the year after Calder finalist Brock Boeser. Next comes Podkolzin.
Dynamic defenceman Jack Rathbone, impressive in an eight-game NHL cameo at the end of his first pro season, should also make the Canucks next fall. So could speedy winger Will Lockwood. Defenceman Olli Juolevi was on the team this season. Amid all that development, goalie Thatcher Demko graduated from the Utica Comets and established himself as an NHL starter.
“We’ve had 15 players make their NHL debuts (for the Canucks) in the last three seasons, and I think 11 of them came through Utica,” player-development director Ryan Johnson said Wednesday. “I think Jim would be the first to tell you we needed to draft well and bring these kids along and help them develop and then, when they're ready, you fit the right pieces around them. So yeah, it’s great for the organization.”
If you search a top-10 list of Canucks prospects from two years ago, most of those players will be on the NHL team next fall and a couple of others, like goalie Michael DiPietro, are not far away.
Given the NHL recession and the Canucks’ salary-cap problems, having players contributing on entry-level contracts is critically important. Podkolzin’s base salary the next three years is $925,000 US, although his potential “Schedule A” bonuses push his cap hit to $1.775 million.
Podkolzin’s basic scoring totals – 11 points in 35 games for St. Petersburg, plus 11 more in 16 playoff games – don’t fully reflect his impact. His ice time was frequently limited as his Russian team pressured Podkolzin to re-sign and stay in the KHL. It’s a league that typically gives little latitude to 18- and 19-year-old players. A three-time member of Russia's world junior team, Podkolzin doesn't turn 20 until June 24.
“He's a big kid, he's six-foot-two and 205 pounds,” Benning said, “so he's got the physical capability, the physical skills to make the jump to the NHL level. He's a 200-foot player. He has attention to detail, plays a mature two-way game. I think he can be an all-situational player for us.
“He is a little bit like Hoglander where he's going to be first on the puck, he'll fight to win puck battles and then he can make good plays once he gets it. I think he can make the jump, but we'll have to see at camp where he's at. I think he's going to come in and he's going to do well.”
Podkolzin could start his NHL career on the Canucks’ third line. He’s not projected to be a scorer like Pettersson or, perhaps, even Hoglander. But his heavy, robust game, with a foundation of skill bolstered by attitude, could make the Russian a valuable middle-six forward – another core piece for the Canucks.
Johnson admitted that with Podkolzin playing in the KHL, during a global pandemic, the Canucks had little hands-on work in the player’s development, although the organization maintained regular contact with him through Benning and coach Travis Green.
“Similar to Elias in Sweden, you knew he was in good hands,” Johnson said. “You could see their path. For a young player to be that detailed and that smart, (aware) of all the situational things all over the ice, is very hard to find. He's a true competitor, a leader by example. He has the skill to make plays, he skates well, it's just a real scary combination of everything. But the most impressive thing is it doesn't matter the time of the game, the situation of the game, the stakes of the game, he plays every shift like it's his last. People pull for those guys when they approach the game the way he does.”
Another player to get excited about.