One of the most controversial prospects for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft is Vasili Podkolzin. He doesn’t have earth-shattering numbers but it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like his tools. I’m someone who likes to combine scouting with statistical analysis. I love it when both of those things are in agreement – it makes my life so much easier. But when those two things don’t match up, that’s when I need to put in the work to figure out what’s the truth behind it all. And that’s what I’m trying to do here with this Russian winger who I refuse to call “enigmatic” because that term is used way too often to describe Russian players.
What my eyes are telling me about Podkolzin is that he’s a power winger who works and competes extremely hard. He never quits on a play even when others do. If you don’t want to give your 100% playing against him, he’s going to win. He’s a well-rounded player who doesn’t cheat for offense but has lots of offensive abilities. He has good leadership qualities, and he leads by example on the ice. He’s capable of energizing the entire team with his play.
Podkolzin also has very good speed, and he combines that with great acceleration and agility. He may not be the fastest guy on the ice but he’s constantly moving and making it difficult for anyone to defend against him. He’s capable of making plays at top speed which is extremely important.
Podkolzin is a shoot-first type player. Both his wrist shot and slap shot are great, and he has a great quick release as well. His shots may not be the most powerful but they’re very accurate. He’s also a very good playmaker with great passing skills. And he has some of the best hands in the draft. He can stick-handle in small spaces and embarrass opposing defenders in one-on-one situations.
Podkolzin is also a very good defensive player and very good on the penalty kill. Because of his high compete level, he’s a great backchecker who frequently steals pucks. At six-foot-one, 190 pounds, Podkolzin is not the biggest guy on the ice. But he’s feisty, totally fearless, and likes to engage physically. He’s a strong player who is only going to get stronger over the next few years. Sometimes he steps over the line or lets his emotions get the better of him but I believe that’s something he can learn to manage.
One important thing to remember about Podkolzin is his age. He doesn’t turn 18 until a couple of days after the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Prospect’s age within his draft class gets often overlooked but I believe it’s an important detail to consider. For example, another Russian prospect Pavel Dorofeyev is eight months older than Podkolzin. That’s a significant advantage for the older player. These are teenagers who are capable of taking huge steps in just a few months. It’s usually these younger players within the draft class who surprise a lot of people when they suddenly explode offensively after they’re drafted.
The things I haven’t mentioned yet are Podkolzin’s hockey sense, creativity and vision. Tools like skating, shot and puck-skills are easier to judge. But hockey sense, creativity and vision are always debatable. And those are the things that are going to determine if he’s going to be an 80-point top-line player or a 60-point second-line player. I believe he has that top-line upside but I can respect those who think otherwise. He’s a sure-fire NHL player but very few prospects are sure-fire top-liners.
And that brings us to his numbers. They don’t look like someone’s who is going to post huge offensive numbers in the NHL. Here’s a screenshot of his stats from this season courtesy of EliteProspects.com.
What makes Podkolzin’s situation difficult to decipher is that he’s played in three different leagues this season, and he’s also played in multiple international tournaments which means the biggest sample size we can find is 14 games from the VHL. 14 games is a very small sample size, so that means drawing legitimate conclusions from his numbers is almost impossible. His sample size should be at least two or three times bigger for any kind of reliable conclusions. Because of that, I will dive deeper into his numbers and go through all the leagues and tournaments to figure out what exactly has happened.
Podkolzin has played three games with SKA St. Petersburg. He’s averaged 3:30 of ice time per game and posted zero points. SKA is one of the top teams in the KHL and definitely one of the deepest, so it’s a bit of a surprise they’ve even found room for him as their 13th forward for those few games. I think it’s safe to say those games can be ignored. That’s a total of 10:30 split over three games, so that’s a completely irrelevant sample size.
The Supreme Hockey League (a.k.a. VHL) is the second-highest level in Russia. It often gets overlooked but it’s a good professional league. My opinion is that it’s slightly below the Finnish Liiga and slightly above the Swedish Allsvenskan in terms of quality of competition. As we saw from the screenshot, Podkolzin played 14 games in the VHL during the regular season. He has also played two games there during the playoffs. He had five points during the regular season, and he’s added one goal in the playoffs. So that’s a total of six points in 16 games.
Podkolzin averaged 12:18 of ice time per game during the regular season, and during the playoffs he’s played 5:43 in the first game and 10:26 in the second game. Regular season and playoffs combined, he’s averaged 11:47 of ice time per game. SKA-Neva was the top team during the regular season, so it’s difficult for a 17-year-old kid to get significant ice time on that team. If you ignore the three games where he received less than 10 minutes of ice time, his totals would be six points in 13 games while averaging 12:40 of ice time.
It’s also important to understand that the VHL is not a high-scoring league. Even though SKA-Neva was the top team during the regular season, they only scored 181 goals which averages out to 3.2 goals per game. That mark led the league but for comparison’s sake, nine NHL teams have an average that’s better than theirs. SKA-Neva’s leading scorer had 33 points in 51 games. Their top forward averaged 17:02 of ice time per game but they had nine or ten (depending on how you count them) regulars at forward who averaged more ice time than Podkolzin.
Columbus’ second round pick Kirill Marchenko played on the same team this year. During the regular season, he had three points in 23 games while averaging 11:09 of ice time per game. He hasn’t played in the playoffs so far. So even though Marchenko is a year older, Podkolzin’s numbers are better than his.
If you take all those things into consideration, I think Podkolzin’s numbers in the VHL are actually very good. There are a lot of reasons why he shouldn’t be putting up numbers in his situation, yet he’s still managed to produce very respectable numbers considering the circumstances. And some of those points have been highlight-reel material as seen from the clips posted in the first segment.
The MHL is the top junior league in Russia. It is somewhat comparable to Canadian junior leagues except that it’s even more uneven than those. Some teams in the MHL are really good while others are terrible. You’ll also see very odd coaching decisions in that league. Sometimes top forwards play 30 minutes per game (see: Shafigullin, Bulat) whereas other coaches like the scoring by committee approach more. MHL numbers should always be investigated further instead of just checking the totals.
For Podkolzin, he has posted eight points in 12 games while averaging 16:03 of ice time. Those numbers don’t look impressive but one important thing to remember is that he has only played two games in the MHL after September, so most of those games were very early in the season when he was just starting to adjust to that league – he hadn’t played in the MHL before this season.
Podkolzin also played most of those games against the top teams in the league and didn’t have a chance to pad his stats against some of the weaker teams – that’s why sample size is an important factor. If he had stayed in the MHL, he most likely would have started to dominate at that level pretty quickly, and his numbers at the end of the season would have looked very impressive. But instead, the organization decided it’s better for his development to make the jump to the VHL.
Because of these factors, I’m not worried about Podkolzin’s numbers in the MHL. They don’t look great on paper but considering it’s a very small sample size and he was just starting to adjust to that level at the start of the season when he was barely 17 years old, I don’t have an issue with his numbers there.
It was very impressive for the 17-year-old Podkolzin to crack the Russian roster because their head coach hates using such young players on his team. They left older players like Dmitry Zavgorodny (CGY), Alexander Khovanov (MIN) and Bulat Shafigullin (LA) off the roster but decided to include Podkolzin. That says a lot about his abilities.
But Podkolzin didn’t just crack the roster, he played an average of 13:58 per game and had three assists in seven games. He earned a lot of praise for his all-around game. Obviously it would have been nice to see him put up more points but again, I’m not worried about his production at the World Juniors. He produced enough all things considered.
World Junior A Challenge
The WJAC is a U20 tournament played in Canada. It’s played a couple of weeks before the World Juniors, and this is where Podkolzin earned his spot to the WJC team. He played against some very good prospects like Bobby Brink (USA) and Alex Newhook (Canada West), and he led the tournament in scoring with three goals and eight points in six games.
Podkolzin had a great tournament, and I doubt anyone questions his production in this case. He was also the team Captain for Russia in this tournament. You can read more about the tournament as well as Podkolzin’s performance from this article by Steven Ellis: World Junior A Challenge.
This is the U18 tournament that truly started the Podkolzin hype train early in the season. He captained Team Russia and led the tournament in scoring with eight goals and 11 points in five games. Other notable players in this tournament included Alexis Lafrenière, Ryan Suzuki and Kirby Dach for Canada, Arthur Kaliyev and Nicholas Robertson for USA, Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz and Philip Broberg for Sweden, and Kasper Simontaival and Patrik Puistola for Finland. So it was definitely a high-end tournament filled with top prospects, and Podkolzin was a dominant force there.
U18 Five Nations in Russia
This tournament was played in early February. Podkolzin was once again the team Captain for Russia, and he finished the tournament with three goals in three games. He was ejected during the third game and suspended because of it which is why he didn’t play four games like most others. You can read more about the tournament from this article: Tournament Review: U18 Five Nations in Russia.
2018 U18 Worlds
This tournament was played last season but I just wanted to mention it here to remind everyone that Podkolzin didn’t just come out of nowhere. He had four points in four games at the U18 Worlds as a 16-year-old almost a year ago. He played a game less than the others but was just two points behind the team lead.
One common thing I’ve heard or seen a lot over the past couple of years has been that international tournaments are irrelevant and should be ignored. And I do agree with that to a certain degree. International tournaments are very short, so it’s easy to overrate or underrate a prospect based on that small sample size. A top prospect can look like garbage and an average prospect can look like a superstar for a week. It happens.
So if you have a chance to watch someone play 40 games in their own league, that larger sample size is much more reliable. I still wouldn’t ignore international games entirely but I would put more emphasis on the club play. But in Podkolzin’s case, we don’t have that luxury. He has played a total of 29 games in Russian leagues but even those are spread over three different levels. He has actually played almost as many games with Team Russia at different events than he has in the SKA organization. And because of that, I think we have to include everything he’s done when making our conclusions about him.
So where exactly should he be drafted? I don’t have a definite answer to that. His tools make him look like a top five pick, and his production in international tournaments has matched that. But his production in the Russian leagues looks more suitable for a top 20 pick. But as explained above, there are mitigating circumstances which should be taken into consideration.
For me, he’s part of the next group that comes after Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. But that group has a few players, so Podkolzin could realistically be anywhere from number three to ten depending on the day. I have yet to see anything that makes me think he should fall outside the top 10. Obviously the season isn’t over yet but whatever he does in VHL playoffs or at the U18 Worlds is unlikely to change my opinion drastically. Even if he’s terrible or amazing for the rest of this season, I think he’s part of that same group based on his entire body of work.
Podkolzin has stated he wants to stay in Russia until he’s ready to play in the NHL. He has made it clear he doesn’t want to play in the CHL but he may not be crossing the pond to play in the AHL either. Some people could get scared by those comments but I’m not really concerned. He has two years remaining on his contract with SKA, and I believe he’s ready to jump straight to the NHL after that contract is over. Anyone drafting him should be prepared to wait two years before seeing him in the NHL. Perhaps that pushes him down a few spots on draft boards but there are no guarantees the other prospects in the same range are ready to play in the NHL sooner than that.
If Podkolzin is NHL ready at age 20 – as I suspect he will be – but refuses to cross the pond at that point, then I’m starting to get worried. But I’ll cross that bridge if I have to. Top prospects like him don’t usually stay in Russia no matter how much money rich teams like SKA throw at them. They want to play in the NHL, so they usually get there at some point.
Podkolzin is a controversial prospect, and there are a lot of opinions about him. Because of that, it’s important to gather all the information that’s available and form your own opinion of him. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters in your fantasy hockey league. I hope this article has been helpful towards that goal. For what it’s worth, Podkolzin was ranked third in our 2019 NHL Draft Fantasy Rankings, and he was ranked fourth on Cam Robinson’s latest ranking.
If you want to see more highlights of him, I recommend this video from Andy Lehoux:
A quick final note about Podkolzin’s first name. As with many Russian names, there are different spellings for it. I use Vasili because that’s what EliteProspects is using. Russian websites use Vasily. Both are equally correct. HockeyRU20 Twitter account uses “Vasya” for some reason but they’re talking about the same player.
Previously on Prospect Deep Dive:
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Main picture courtesy of fhr.ru