After being drafted 10th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, Vancouver Canucks right winger Vasily Podkolzin has had a slow start to his career. Despite a decent rookie season in 2021-22, he found himself in and out of the lineup in 2022-23, raising questions about his development and the pick in general. He finished strong last season; showing defensive improvement under new head coach Rick Tocchet. Now in his third season with the Canucks, it is time for Podkolzin to show why he was drafted in the top-ten.
Podkolzin’s First Two Seasons in Vancouver
Podkolzin had himself a solid 2020-21 season with the Kontinental Hockey League’s (KHL) SKA St. Petersburg, tallying 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 35 games. The numbers themselves were not eye-popping but for a 19-year-old playing in the second-best professional league in the world, they were pretty good. When it was announced he would be joining the Canucks for the 2021-22 season, expectations were high for the Moscow-born forward. He had an average rookie season, putting up 26 points (14 goals and 12 assists) as a bottom-six forward in 79 games. Among the 19 Canucks forwards who played in 2021-22, he ranked eighth in wins above replacement with 0.7. On the defensive side of the puck, he showed he had a good feel for the game, something crucial to have when developing.
Many thought the 2022-23 season would be his true breakout season. The Russian at that point had a full year to adjust to living in Canada, gel with his teammates, and learn how to play hockey under then-head coach Bruce Boudreau. Instead, he regressed. Podkolzin tallied just seven points (four goals, three assists) in 39 games. His wins above replacement dropped to a minus-0.2. Night in and night out he was borderline invisible on the ice, both offensively and defensively. His performances led to him being healthy scratched for periods of time and ultimately sent down to the Canucks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Abbotsford Canucks.
Boudreau had this to say about Podkolzin’s AHL assignment: “In Washington when we had really good young players, they had to play and they developed to the point where they became the Capitals for 15 years…That’s what we’re looking at, Podz is going to be an NHL player for a long time and he’s going to be back, and so is Jack [Rathbone]. If we’ve got enough guys, and they’re not playing, let’s get them some ice time and get their confidence back up.”
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Vancouver called Podkolzin back up the Canucks on Feb. 4, 2023, after showing improvement in Abbotsford. This time around, however, Boudreau would not be coaching him. Tocchet took over the bench a couple of weeks prior, giving Podkolzin a fresh start. His offensive game did not show great improvement, but his defensive game was much improved. Before his assignment, he forced 4.4 turnovers per 60 minutes, the lowest among Canucks forwards. After his assignment, he forced 7.9 turnovers per 60. He finished checks, forechecked hard, and more importantly, made a positive impact for Vancouver.
Defense is Good, But…
Despite the improved defense from Podkolzin, the Canucks need to see much more offense out of him to justify drafting him 10th overall. His seven points last season ranked 12th out of the 13 forwards selected in the first round in the 2019 Draft (minimum 20 games played). That is obviously not what Podkolzin nor the Canucks wanted to see in his sophomore season. Having your top-ten pick be a “defense-only” winger is a loss for the Canucks, and an uptick in offense in 2023-24 could change that.
Podkolzin has support from Tocchet, too, to play more free. “Podzy’s just gotta let it hang, he’s just got to play almost a little reckless,” said Tocchet. “I think when he gets in trouble he receives the puck and then he makes his decision instead of like — he knows he’s going to get the puck, then he can make his play in his mind as he’s receiving the puck. It seems like he’s getting it and then he just wants to make that steady play, whether that’s a chip up the boards when sometimes nobody’s on you. That’s the time to make a play or move your feet.”
With a boost of confidence from his coach and talent around him, there is no excuse for Podkolzin to not break out this season. If he is able to put his disappointing sophomore season in the rearview mirror, continue to show off his defensive prowess, and allow himself to play more freely on the offensive end, he can end up being the player the Canucks had hoped for when he was drafted four years ago.
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