The upper-echelon of this years draft has sorely missed a top-end prospect with an edge. There is no Brady Tkachuk type player who combines toughness with skill at an elite level. The closest player to that this year is Russian winger Vasili Podkolzin. Podkolzin is one of the most intense players I’ve ever seen. The difference between Podkolzin and Tkachuk, however, is the latter’s ability to elevate his game with his abrasive style.
Podkolzin’s compete level is no question the best in the draft, but there is much more to his game. He is a flashy stick handler who makes most of his plays off the rush. His highlights are filled with end-to-end rushes that will leave you amazed. The flash and bang of his game is quite tantalizing, but some flaws restrict what is otherwise an elite offensive talent.
|Birthday||June 24, 2001|
Skating: 55 – Puck Skills: 70 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 55 – Physicality: 60
Reputation is one of the more controversial aspects in today’s NHL. We all have our opinions on Brad Marchand, Tom Wilson, Nazem Kadri, and the likes. Some embrace their style of play, while others resent it. On the ice, however, there is no question how the players view those names. They have the reputation of playing hard, physical, and like to get into the opponents face. You’ll always come to the same conclusion: you love them if they’re on your team, and you hate them if they’re not.
That is the sense I get from watching Podkolzin. Every shift he plays with a deer in headlights mentality. He locks on to puck carriers and he will hit and scratch and fight to the very end. He throws everything he’s got at you. Top players in today’s game simply don’t have the same drive as him. He’s like a junkyard dog, not looking to give anybody an inch. His ultra-aggressiveness makes him a monster on the forecheck.
The trouble with Podkolzin is not to over value his competitiveness. It’s a style of game I appreciate so much, but that doesn’t always equate to a star player. It can’t always elevate a good player into a great one, but it does define who they are. But one way or another, he finds away to reel you back in with an assertive board battle, haunting backcheck, or diving in front of a shot while in pain. He doesn’t give up on any play and gives a 200% effort every night. He isn’t content with being outside the action.
Some of the clips below really depict what Podkolzin is all about. This is a guy you want on your team.
This kid doesn’t back down from anyone. I love how he uses his body to shove players off the puck. When he wants the puck its his puck.
But to be a top-6 forward in the NHL you have to be more than competitive. There needs to be high-end skill and Podkolzin has it. His stickhandling is among the best in the draft. He probably had more highlight reel goals then any other draft eligible this season. Many of which came off the rush, rather than off the cycle. The mechanics of his skating could be better, but he is always hustling which makes him much more overwhelming to contain. I mean, seriously, this kid never stops moving his feet.
Russia running all over Finland in the 2nd. Vasilii Podkolzin (Russia No. 19) having himself a day, now showing some nice agility to gain the zone. pic.twitter.com/yCxklgi2TJ
— Cameron (@AthanasiouLater) August 6, 2018
Podkolzin keeps pulling off those ridiculous rushes and it’s really hard to put into words how. There isn’t too much east-west in his game. He plays almost an entirely north-south game, which should make him somewhat predictable. Also slightly worrying is how many times he is caught with his head down. On some of his goals, he stares directly down at the puck for the entirety of the play. If he doesn’t fix that the consequences could get severe. He has already paid the price many times for playing head down hockey.
His head constantly being down has also restricted his playmaking ability. He struggles to generate offense in a cycle because he isn’t looking up to find his teammates. From what I’ve seen on rushes, he has strong vision but there is more time to improvise in transition. It’s a bizarre concern that I would generally ignore, but it kept popping up throughout the year.
Statistics via eliteprospects.com
Looking above to his scoring marks, I know there are some who have expressed major concerns with his production in Russia. I won’t deny his poor offensive zone play might be the biggest factor in that, but it really has not been a big issue for me. I’ve never viewed statistics as the end all be all. At the same rate, I also don’t buy into the fact that him splitting time between the MHL, VHL, and KHL took a toll on his production. Every game of the season from start to finish he looked exactly the same. While I will admit he was not the dominant presence I would have liked in the MHL, I still thought he played well. In the KHL and VHL’s case he got barely any ice-time.
Once he figures it all out he’ll be fine. His elite skill set and competitiveness were the reasons why he dominated the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and World Jr. A Challenge. The Hlinka Gretzky Cup in particular was his shining moment. He looked like a special player throughout the tournament. I had to stop myself mid-game to realize he was playing wing and not center. He was that controlling of the game from the wing.
Podkolzin is one hell of a talent. He is my favorite player in the entire draft because of his rare skill and competitiveness combination. But, the evaluation is still the evaluation. His limited impact in the offensive zone may hinder his scoring at the next level as it did it juniors. You could be getting a checking third liner (a good one at that) with some scoring upside or a true gamebreaking first-liner. It’s a gamble I’ve had a tough time picking a side on. This is a player I once thought could push for first overall.
Podkolzin’s future has been up for debate by many. It appears as though he’ll be staying over in Russia for the next two years to develop. That is not ideal, but all signs indicate he’ll come over to North America once his two-year contract in Russia expires. It’s important to remember draft picks (especially first rounders) are long-term investments. Waiting two years is nothing in the grand scheme of things. The Russian factor be damned. There isn’t much to be concerned about here.
Upon his arrival to North America he should be able to crack an NHL lineup. I can already tell he’ll come into his first NHL training camp and bang the door down so hard the head coach will have no choice but to find him an opening night lineup spot.