Early on in the season, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Vasili Podkolzin. His numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, leaving little to pop out and I began to unpack some quantitative data. Given the uncertainty of players that jump around leagues in their draft season, I was a little skeptical of his meteoric rise up the rankings.
But then I started watching some tape of him.
Podkolzin is a truly intoxicating player to watch. He plays the game with such a relentless energy and boundless confidence, you can’t help but love what you see.
I’m still not entirely certain of what to make of some of his numbers, but here’s what I am sure of: Podkolzin is a top ten talent in this year’s draft class, and would make a perfectly reasonable pick in the top five as well. Let’s dig in further.
- Age/Birthdate: 17 / June 24, 2001
- Birthplace: Moscow, RUS
- Frame: 6-foot-1 / 196 lbs
- Position: Right Wing
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: SKA (KHL, VHL, MHL)
- EYOF Gold Medal
- Hlinka Memorial Bronze Medal
- U18 WJC Silver Medal
- U20 WJC Bronze Medal
2018-19 Stat Rundown
|LEAGUE||GP||G||A||P||INV%||5v5 Pr INV%||5v5 ePr60||SEAL||Sh/GP||Sh%||5v5 eTOI||GF%||GF%rel||GD60 rel||XLS%||Top XLS%||XPR|
Vasili Podkolzin was among my favourite players to watch this season. While he isn’t necessarily built like a power forward (he’s 6-foot-1 and just under 200 pounds), he certainly plays like, possibly more than any prospect I’ve seen in the past several years.
Before I get into Podkolzin’s skill set, I’d like to draw attention to this chart of microdata manually tracked by J.D. Burke and Mitch Brown of EP Rinkside, as I think exemplifies some themes that we’ll see in his play.
Chiefly, I’d note Podkolzin’s per game rates in shots assists, possession entries, exit assists, failed exits, and neutral zone break ups. Podkolzin is in at least the 77th percentile in each of those event types (except failed exits, in which he is in the 15th percentile, but less in better so it’s functionally the same), and he’s doing this in a professional league no less. I’ll make reference to each of these as we proceed through the report.
SKA-Neva made frequent use of Podkolzin to drive the puck up ice – this is where his possession entry numbers shone. Podkolzin is a powerful skater, both in terms of the velocity generated and the sturdiness that makes him extremely difficult to so much as redirect when he’s in full flight. Early on, a hunched over skating stride had some questioning his mechanics, but his posture has improved and he has lost none of the balance that the low centre of gravity afforded him.
Podkolzin’s hands are phenomenal as well, and we has no trouble controlling the puck at speed. While he has soft hands and quick feet, he’s far from a finesse player – he’s is a stampeding bull on the ice. So much of his game is based around taking the puck around, over, under and through opponents so that he can drive the net with ferocity.
Rarely has Podkolzin seen a hole in a defensive scheme that he didn’t believe he could smash through, even when that hole is a two-foot gap between two 200-pound defencemen. They amazing part is that the 17-year old almost always gets through.
Here, his rush appears to be prevented – but Podkolzin draws a penalty on this play, and SKA-Neva scored on the ensuing power play.
Podkolzin’s shot is good, but not great. He can put some oomph behind it, but his release lacks deception and elite quickness. He doesn’t take a lot of shots from distance, however, preferring jam plays and close-in shots that incorporate his own speed – in this way, he is still making things highly difficult on goaltenders because they are constantly having to readjust to his movement, rather than getting set.
Here’s a particularly impressive goal that demonstrates the above, while also showing off his speed and willingness and ability to go through defences rather than around them.
This goal is a bit of an exception to the rule laid out above, but it does demonstrate that Podkolzin isn’t devoid of shooting ability, and can beat set goalies clean on occasion.
Podkolzin has all the makings of a possession monster at the professional level. His puck protection skills are fantastic, making him extremely difficult to check. Furthermore, he seems to absolutely hate the very idea of giving up possession. I can scarcely remember a time when Podkolzin dumped the puck in the opposing zone; instead, he either enters the zone with possession, or he curls back and uses his defencemen to regroup. It’s a small wonder then that he managed a 100% goals-for percentage in the VHL and a 71% goals-for percentage in the MHL (each at 5-on-5).
Podkolzin consistently finds ways to maintain possession, be it by body positioning, quick feet, identifying pockets of space, juking incoming would-be-checkers, or finding open teammates with quick, accurate passes.
He typically hangs on to the puck as long as it’s feasible, but if the pressure becomes to onerous, he will find a teammate to pass off to – this is never a panicked decision though, and Podkolzin almost always finds that open teammate, and more often than not he finds that teammate heading towards the slot.
That brings us to Podkolzin’s playmaking abilities. Depending on what you read, this might be considered a strength or a weakness. I think the truth is a little bit more complicated than that. Many scouting reports of Podkolzin reference “tunnel vision”, which is most certainly an issue. Podkolzin is often so focused on shoulder-down-net-drives that he doesn’t always take the time to assess his other options.
I have a couple of rebuttals to that: one, his tunnel vision seemed to peak in international play, such as the World Under-18’s, when all NHL eyes were upon him. I have found that he’s been much more amenable to using his teammates in the VHL than when he was playing in the big tournaments.
Two, the fact that Podkolzin doesn’t use his teammates as often as he should doesn’t mean that he can’t use them (although admittedly the fact that he doesn’t use them as often as he should is an issue in itself).
Podkolzin demonstrates exceptional vision in the offensive zone, which, coupled with how difficult he is to take off the puck, makes him extremely dangerous as a set up man. The following clip exemplifies both.
Here’s another example of Podkolzin using a cut-back to create space for himself and then feeding a teammate in the low slot with a deft, backhand, end-line pass – this is an extremely dangerous pre-shot set up and will lead to goals at a very high rate.
Next, we see Podkolzin incorporating a bit of deception into a set up, utilizing a no-look pass that again crosses the end-line and finds a teammate in the slot.
Finally, here at two plays that demonstrate Podkolzin’s puck hunting, vision and passing. In both, he hunts down opposing defencemen, strips them of the puck, and quickly finds a teammate in the slot.
The totality of these plays suggests one thing to me that: Podkolzin should have produced more than he did. Given the sheer volume of turnovers created, dangerous pre-shots passes, and net-drives, Podkolzin should have put up more goals and more assists. I think there are a number of reasons why that didn’t happen, ranging from bad luck to a lack of finishing talent (from both teammates and Podkolzin himself) to a lack of situational consistency and opportunity (more on that in the Analysis section).
Without the puck, Podkolzin has shown that he is adept at reading the play offensively, both on the rush and in half-court formation. In the clip below, he identifies an opening and fades into it – rather than heading hard straight to the net and battling the defenceman, he drifts into open space and makes himself available for a backdoor play.
Continuing with his play without the puck, Podkolzin is a relentless forechecker. He’s dangerous over short distances and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around against opponents, regardless of their size.
Podkolzin is just as ferocious on the backcheck as he is on the forecheck or with the puck. Whether he played a part of the turnover of possession or not (usually not), he races to catch and pressure the puck-carrier (recall those neutral zone breakup rates from above).
From an eye-test perspective, Podkolzin is a delight, but from a more nuanced angle, we can see that many of the abilities that make him stand out visually are the type of abilities that also drive possession.
One of the things that makes Podkolzin such an intriguing player to me is that he’s very difficult to assess quantitatively. In the past, with less opportunity to binge on game tape, I would have been quite a bit more cautious with a player like this. Having seen as much of Podkolzin as I have, and having liked so much of what I’ve seen, I’m much more willing to endorse the young Russian in spite of a lack of statistical evidence.
The problem with assessing Podkolzin from a data-based perspective stems from two sources: the types of leagues that he played in, and the sheer number of those leagues. Podkolzin played games with the three most prominent Russian leagues this season (the top-tier KHL, the second-tier VHL, and the junior MHL), as well has playing in international tournaments at both the U18 and U20 levels. The 22 games (playoffs included) that he played SKA-Neva of the VHL were the most he played of any single league.
2018-19 Games Played and Points by League – Playoffs included
This doesn’t even begin to consider opportunity. In those three KHL games, Podkolzin average just 3:30 of ice time, which can hardly be considered opportunity at all. He averaged 12:18 in the VHL regular season, but saw that drop to 7:48 in the playoffs. In the MHL, he averaged 16:03.
I read in a scouting report earlier this season that some of Philip Broberg’s struggles in the Allsvenskan should be excused because he didn’t have enough time to get settled in a single league, having played there in addition to the SuperElit league and at international tournaments. But Broberg played 41 regular games for AIK this season – if that’s not enough to get settled, what does that say about Podkolzin?
I took the liberty of gathering every game that Podkolzin played this season, and plotted them by date and league. The results are unlike anything that I’ve ever seen. The amount that he was bounced around this season is astounding.
This has been a common issue for evaluating high level Russian prospects, most recently with Klim Kostin and Grigori Denisenko. Kostin missed a huge portion of his draft season due to injury, but also bounced around, playing in each of the KHL, VHL and MHL that year. He was picked 31st overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2017 and has since played two full seasons in the American League, amassing 52 totals points, despite turning 20 just last month.
Denisenko meanwhile spent his draft season in the KHL, MHL and at international tournaments before being picked 15th overall by the Florida Panthers in 2018. He’s jumped around Russia much the same this season, so the book is far from written on him.
These factors, combined with the resulting small sample sizes, have made it very difficult to evaluate these players analytically against their peers. I presently don’t have pGPS or SEAL numbers for MHL or VHL players due to a variety of data sample issues, including the relative newness of the leagues. I do plan on adding both to the SEAL model shortly, but adding them to a cohort model will require some more creativity.
In the meantime, I was able to pull some game sheet data from the respective websites of the MHL and VHL. Everything in this regard comes with a sample size caveat, but I did find the with-or-without-you charts interesting. First, the MHL chart indicates some improvement with Podkolzin versus without him:
Meanwhile, the VHL chart shows green and blue dots all along the top – the reason being that Podkolzin wasn’t on the ice for any goals in the VHL this season, leaving him with a 100% goals-for percentage.
One of Podkolzin’s greatest sins is that he is a winger. For that, it seems likely that he’ll fall several spots in the draft after hovering at third on most rankings through mid-season. Competing with the likes of Alex Turcotte, Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach and Peyton Krebs, as well as defenceman Bowen Byram, Podkolzin’s positional deficiency will likely set him back.
Even Cole Caufield, who is another winger but clearly the draft class’s most accomplished goal scorer, has a shot to surpass him. That ties into some worries about Podkolzin’s overall upside, and these worries are not easily cast aside. A lack of dominant production in domestic play, excusable though it may be, invites some additional risk.
On the flip side, I see Podkolzin as having one of the highest floors of the draft. His physical ability and mindset all but guarantee that he will be at worst a third liner NHL player in short order. Based on his possession-driving style and competitive hunger, I think that he’ll produce enough to be a top six winger, but he is not assured a future as a first line winger.
I also think that Podkolzin is the type of player that could thrive in the NHL sooner rather than later, at least as a two-way player before the offence develops, not unlike Filip Chytil did with the New York Rangers two seasons ago. That’s assuming he wants to though – Podkolzin has two years remaining on his contract with SKA, and has shut down the idea of joining the CHL (his rights are held by the Medicine Hat Tigers), which only adds to the general trepidation surrounding him.
The top end of the NHL draft is a time to take a swing on upside, and teams are generally loathe to use high picks where there is the slightest sign of malcontent; so I can understand why Podkolzin may fade from the top five, but I believe he has too much potential to fade much beyond that. He has the look of a player that will haunt the teams that pass over him. Personally I’d be reticent to let him slip further than 5 or 6.
Rolling Season Data
Raw data for the charts used in this article came from eliteprospects.com, vhlru.ru and engmhl.khl.ru.
Some clips were pulled from videos from prospectshifts.com. Check out Vasili Podkolzin’s page here (paywall). Other clips were pulled from original broadcasts, with all rights reserved for the original broadcast companies.
Dad, husband, hockey fan. Founder/analyst/editor/admin of NextGenHockey.ca. Contributor at CanucksArmy and the Nation Network. Blending video analysis and statistical modeling. pGPS, SEAL, etc. The Minnesota Twins are finally good again!