Once you get beyond the first round of the NHL Draft, you begin to run out of prospects with high-level abilities. It becomes a matter of selecting players who have one or two traits that can be improved upon. All of them will require more development to get to a point where they can challenge for an NHL spot, and the challenge for a scouting staff is to find players more likely to correct their flaws and let their strengths shine.
There will be players available who have one incredible trait but several below-average talents that limit its effectiveness. Other players will have outperformed their true abilities, and the test is to avoid wasting picks on those who will never live up to a high projection. Or there are players who just do things slightly better than the majority of their peers to put themselves on the radar. Vasili Ponomarev stands in this last group.
Birthplace: Zelenograd, Russia
Date of birth: March 13, 2002
Weight: 176 lbs.
Team: Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
He’s not a big forward, doesn’t play an overly physical game, isn’t all that fast, and his offensive game rarely wows audiences. In a matchup with just about any opponent outside of the elite prospects, however, he is better at at least one element of the game.
Ponomarev is a good two-way forward, and that already raises him above more one-dimensional prospects. There’s nothing overly impressive about his 49 points from 57 games a season ago, and teams aren’t going to trip over each other to acquire his goal-scoring. Many of his 18 goals came from simply jumping into a vacated spot of ice while the play was on the opposite side and sending a cross-ice feed into an open net, but that does point to his good awareness of what is going on around him.
His offensive game is more about making plays. Usually on a power play he was working along the wall or high in the zone trying to find a passing lane, with no intention of shooting the puck. He was very good at finding the best passing lane — often a wide one given the defensive breakdowns you find in Junior hockey — to connect with open teammates.
He probably deserved a lot more than 31 assists on the year. He spent a lot of energy on the perimeter of the offensive zone to draw defenders and then leave them behind, but his teammates rarely converted. Given that his 18 goals ranked fourth on the team, and the best mark was 33, it’s easy to understand why. Many of the assists he did have were the result of a linemate accepting his pass and firing the puck right off the goaltender, with another player jamming in the rebound.
The playmaking skill should manifest in assists once he gets paired with a decent finisher. There are things he can do to boost his offensive numbers as well. He tends to use just a few set plays in the offensive zone, like moving into the net and then sending a pass back to the blue line, and that became predictable during the season. Being more reactive to the situation and attempting more difficult passes would boost his numbers, even without the addition of a proper goal-scorer to his line.
Elite Prospects: #36
Future Considerations: #43
Hockey Prospect: #81
McKeen’s Hockey: #81
NHL Central Scouting: #48 (North American skaters)
It’s not the odd flash of offensive skill that has several outlets pegging him as an early second-round selection, it’s that the effort he shows to create plays in the attacking end is seen all over the ice. He was very good at gaining the offensive zone on a team that generally didn’t try to hold possession on the way up the ice (as evidenced by the high relative rate in the graphic below).
When the puck changed hands, he hounded the carrier in the neutral zone to win it back, or used a very active stick to intercept neutral-zone passes and lead a quick counter-attack. In the defensive zone that stick was constantly in motion to shut off passing and shooting lanes, and he was very successful at doing that, ranking in the 93rd percentile in breaking up opposition plays.
Ponomarov earns the success he enjoys by outworking the other players on the ice. It had to have been a frustrating year for him to see so few of his setups result in goals, but he stuck with his plan for 57 games. A 200-foot game is high on the list of organizational wants at draft time, as those prospects have fewer faults that need to be corrected to become NHL-ready.
He’s unable to rejoin Shawinigan for the 2020-21 season start with the pandemic preventing him and all other European players from heading back to Canada, so he won’t be able to get up to speed with his teammates for the start of his draft-plus-one season. The scouts who were impressed by his underlying abilities will be thankful that there will be no last-minute chances to see what he has to offer and get moved higher up on draft lists. He may only qualify as above average in most of his abilities, but if just one of those skills sees an improvement, he could end up being a steal as a second-round pick, or held up in the years to come to criticize 30 other NHL organizations if he slips to the third.