On a team full of 19-year-olds, right winger Vasily Podkolzin managed to stand out as a 17-year-old on Russia’s 2019 world junior squad. The powerful two-way player helped the Russians earn bronze in Vancouver, and the West Coast city has already become near and dear to Podkolzin’s heart thanks to his second trip, when he was taken 10th overall at the 2019 NHL draft by the host Canucks.
Now he returns to the world juniors with the benefit of experience on his side. “Mainly I got used to the atmosphere, the electricity,” he said through a translator. “I got used to the physical play, and now it should be much easier for me.”
It didn’t look like Podkolzin had many problems in his first go-around at the tournament, so it will be exhilarating to see what he can do if he reaches his own high standards. What quickly became clear in Vancouver was that legendary Russian coach Valeri Bragin trusted Podkolzin, and that had an impact on him. “The first time you’re a little shaken, you get nervous,” Podkolzin said. “But at the end of the day you understand it’s your job. It’s hockey and you have to do it. You have to play your game.”
Podkolzin has been adjusting to different situations for more than a year now, as he has bounced between teams in the SKA St. Petersburg program. On top of his time in the KHL, he has also suited up for St. Petersburg’s farm team and junior team. “It was the same last year,” said Podkolzin, 18. “It was tough, but I’m used to it. Bouncing between the leagues is OK, but the hockey is different.”
Though he won’t be the oldest player on this year’s team, Podkolzin is one of seven players eligible to return for the defending bronze medallists, and he’s ready for a leadership role. “I prefer to lead by example, but I can say something, too,” he said. “We have a lot of guys on the team who are true leaders, and they can share their thoughts. There is no lack of leaders here.”
On the ice, Podkolzin plays like a charging bull while also bringing a healthy dose of skill to the table.
It’s amazing to think he’ll still be eligible to play in the 2021 world juniors, and that’s great news for Russia, where Podkolzin’s passionate game has been perfect for the big international stage.
There are certain trademarks to coach Valeri Bragin’s Russian teams: they are experienced, they are defensively fierce and they play heavy. Expect more of the same this year, with the Russians poised to make a run for gold - if they go with super-prospect Yaroslav Askarov in net. It may not be traditional to ride a 17-year-old goaltender at the WJC, but Askarov already has a decorated international resume and he offers more upside than any of the older candidates.
Of course, thanks to some of the weapons that Bragin has at his disposal, goaltending might not even have to be the deciding factor. The attack will be led by Florida pick Grigori Denisenko, with Vancouver prospect Vasily Podkolzin also playing a role – particularly on the forecheck. Big-bodied Kirill Marchenko (CLB) and silky Ivan Morozov (VEG) round out the group of returning forwards who won bronze last year.
The Russians were counting on a contribution from Calgary pick Dmitry Zavgorodniy of QMJHL Rimouski. He was excellent in the CHL-Russia series and is a teammate of Canada’s Alexis Lafreniere. But an injury in mid-November has him sidelined for two months.
On the back end, look for Montreal pick Alexander Romanov to take another marquee turn after last year’s all-star performance in Vancouver, which also saw the offensively gifted rearguard earn best defenseman honors. During the CHL-Russia series, the Canadians believed they could throw off their opponent’s defense corps by playing really physical. If that’s true, Russia will want to make sure New Jersey pick Nikita Okhotyuk is on their back end. He’s a granite-hard hitter who has been playing against OHL competition for two-plus seasons with the Ottawa 67’s.
Askarov has the most upside in net after statement showings at the world under-18s and Hlinka-Gretzky tourney, but as a youngster he’ll have to prove himself. Amir Miftakhov was Russia’s third goalie last year and the only one eligible to return. He was OK at the CHL-Russia series but lacks ideal size.
THN’s Odds for Gold: 5-1