Few prospects have as polarizing as Vasily Podkolzin was ahead of his draft year. Prior to last June, it seemed nobody could agree where he belonged in the rankings, some suggesting he was the third-best player available and others putting Podkolzin far down the list as a late first-rounder. It didn't help matters that with two years left on his KHL deal, some were skeptical as to whether he'd come over to the NHL anytime soon, this despite comments at the draft combine saying he was NHL-bound as soon as his contract with SKA St. Petersburg was complete.
But amid all the conjecture, the Vancouver Canucks were the first to take a shot, selecting Podkolzin 10th overall with some pundits calling it one of the draft's biggest steals. The 2019-20 campaign was seen as his opportunity to prove his (many) doubters wrong.
Here we are, though, a few months into the campaign, and that hasn't been the case. In 11 KHL games, Podkolzin has failed to register a single point, meanwhile he's seemingly proven too good for the Russian junior league with some believing he would dominate the second-tier Russian league if he spent the full campaign there.
As it pertains to the KHL, most of Podkolzin's struggles boil down to opportunity. A strong SKA St. Petersburg team isn't all that interested in developing players for the NHL, and as such, Podkolzin has been used sparingly – though even that might be a generous term for it. Through the 11 games in which he's appeared, he has a 4:09 ice time average, has skated a single shift as a fourth-liner in three separate contests and has only skated 10 or more shifts in two contests. No wonder he's failed to find the scoresheet.
But that's why the Canada-Russia Series was supposed to be so important for a player whom many have tabbed as one of Russia's most important with the World Junior Championship on the horizon. However, despite often looking like Russia's most dangerous forwards and leading all players with 15 shots heading into the final game of the series, Podkolzin has just one power-play assist to his credit.
Would he have been more productive during the six-game exhibition series had he been more active back home? That's the feeling at least one Russian scout has. "Podkolzin oozes skill, power and speed, but he rarely gets to display that in the KHL," the scout said. "When he's thrown in a checking role and only playing a shift or two a night, that's not really development. You see how well he dominates his own age group, but his KHL coaches won't give him a fair shot."
That dominance has been evident in the past, too, which makes his usage so puzzling. He was the best player by a long shot at the World Junior A Challenge last December and was fantastic as Russia's youngest forward at the World Junior Championship shortly thereafter. He seemed to thrive when the spotlight was on him, leading Russians with 33 points in 26 games with the U-18 team last season, and nobody was particularly close to catching him.
"Podkolzin is still a young kid. He needs to get out there, learn from his mistakes and play as much as he can," another scout said. "He's too good for junior, he's too good for second-tier hockey, he needs to be playing against men. He's not getting that opportunity, and it's frustrating to watch because he's much better than his stat line suggests."
Scouts have praised Podkolzin's ability to throw a huge hit to knock a player off the puck or steal it and make an effective play. Few prospects have a shot as accurate as Podkolzin's, either, and he's rarely a bystander in his own zone. But the bottleneck in St. Petersburgh – as the only 2001-born player, he's stuck behind veteran talent – has seen him stapled to the bench.
There's no clear answer as to what comes next for Podkolzin. As far as the Canucks are concerned, however, the hope has to be that St. Petersburg gives him an opportunity upon his returns home and that he can gather some momentum before the world juniors. He has the skill to become the best prospect in the team's system. He just needs the opportunity to prove it.
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