Vasili Podkolzin shot up the rankings with his performance at the 2018 Hlinka/Gretzky Cup. He burst onto the scene, showed he could dominate his age group, recorded 11 points in five games, and captured the imagination with this beautiful goal.
In the sequence, he saw the neutral zone open in front of him, accelerated between blue lines, and split the defence before roofing the puck from his knees — shades of the skilled power forwards of previous NHL eras.
Podkolzin made it clear he had great offensive capabilities in the tournament. The event seemed to set the prospect up for a huge season in the Russian Junior league, something that would only be interrupted by further strong play in international tournaments.
Birthplace: Moskva, Russia
Weight: 190 lbs.
Team: SKA-Neva Saint Petersburg (VHL)
But, as it is often the case with prospects, that didn’t happen as anticipated. Instead, Podkolzin’s draft year ended up making him a somewhat divisive prospect, as the numbers didn’t follow the early display of talent.
Glancing at the forward’s Elite Prospects page, the profile doesn’t match the high rankings given by the majority of scouting services. He never broke the point-per-game mark in any of the leagues he played. He didn’t score in his short stint in the KHL (three games) and only picked up five and eight points, respectively, in his time in the VHL and MHL. Even in the international tournaments that followed the Hlinka, Podkolzin’s production hasn’t been anything to write home about.
But the evaluation of the Russian winger doesn’t stop with his numbers. His skill never left him, despite it not translating to the scoresheet as often as he wanted. It’s what makes him a complicated case in this draft, and will probably have him be a intense source of debate in the construction of NHL draft boards.
During the year, Podkolzin showed himself to be the same complete offensive player he was at the Hlinka. He loves having the puck on his stick. When he gets it, he fiercely competes to hold it, and his good puck protection habits make it very hard to take it away from him. He consistently presents his back to the defence, twisting and turning to shield possession. If defenders get too close, he switches to one hand on his stick, using his free arm to further deny any pokecheck attempt. And if opponents engage physically, they can suffer some mean reverse hits; the winger isn’t afraid to use his strength to his advantage to create space for himself.
In close quarters, he is also able to play the puck with his feet and has a knack for getting free from checking pressure to push the puck in reach of his stick, squeak out of a scrum, and escape with possession.
This talent to play against back pressure makes the Russian winger a threat to not only create offence from the boards (which not many young players can do consistently, even those bigger in stature) but also to drive the net in sometimes highlight-reel fashion, like he did in the Gold Medal Game of the Under-18 World Championship. There, he received the puck in the slot, slid it out of reach of an opposing stick, stepped around the defender, and, getting on his outside edges while protecting the puck with his arm extended, cut to the front of the net to score.
Another standout trait is his ability to manipulate opposing sticks and skates with timely fakes. Watch in the first sequence below how he starts in the corner of the offensive zone and opens up his skates, going heel-to-heel to deceive a defender into thinking he is cutting back. The defender goes straight to him and extends his stick to block that cutback lane, but the Russian forward immediately turns the other way. With this move, the opponent’s stick is caught in the wrong direction and can’t prevent Podkozlin from cutting to the net — what he wanted to do all along.
In the second sequence, he is rushing through the neutral zone against two defencemen and a close backchecking forward. Having just stepped inside the blue line, he is too far for a shot to have a real chance at beating the goalie, and the line of defence is closing on him fast. So he brings the puck forward and slides it right back at his hip. This way, he baits a pokecheck, which allows him to get inside and closer to the net to release.
Some of his deceptive moves combine with his fast and precise handling to add to his effectiveness in close quarters and to his rush offence.
As mentioned before, the forward wants possession more than anything else. When his team doesn’t have the puck, he hunts it back. He will go to great lengths to strip it away from opponents, landing big hits and chasing back opposing carriers through the neutral zone to attempt stick lifts.
He is also an effective forechecker and generates his share of offence by stealing the puck right in the opponent’s end before capitalizing on the chaos created by the turnovers. With his work ethic and relentless energy, he can be an asset defensively and on the penalty kill. He is strong on puck retrievals, understanding that he has to seal it away from opponents first and foremost. In races to loose pucks, he takes routes that bring him right into the opponent’s lane, preventing access to it and allowing him to get the first touch and make a play.
In the video above, Podkolzin drops his shoulder, gets in front of the opponent, and creates a pocket in which to handle the puck. It is also on and off his stick in a second as he immediately finds a supporting forward for a scoring chance.
All in all, the Russian forward generates his offence from solid habits that he applies all over the ice — the same habits that bring success to a lot of NHLers. With some work on his skating ability, adding more speed and explosiveness to it, the great details of his play combined with his hands and vision could very well turn him into a top scorer, and one with solid two-way ability.
It’s true that Podkolzin’s production leaves questions unanswered. It would have been preferable to see him transfer his skill into numbers to project his offensive impact at the next level. But on talent alone, the Russian winger is a clear top-five pick in this draft. He only needs one organization to let him settle into a league, get a consistent role, and put up the numbers he is capable of.
It’s what he didn’t have time to do in his draft season, as he was dragged up and down three different levels of hockey with varying ice time and participated in many successive international tournaments: the Hlinka/Gretzy Cup, the World Juniors, the Five Nations (where he was injured), ending with the Under-18s.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Elite Prospects: #3
Future Considerations: #3
Hockey Prospect: #3
ISS Hockey: #4
McKeen’s Hockey: #5
NHL Central Scouting: #2 (EU skaters)
Drafting Podkolzin means being patient — the winger is signed for two more years with SKA and the earliest he can join the NHL will be the 2021-22 season — but the wait will be worth it if it means adding the final touch to a rebuild in the form of a fierce offensive talent.