The Canucks have focussed on a few things at the draft table over the past few years, from speed and skill to drive and motor. One of the overarching criteria for the Canucks at the NHL entry draft, however, is character.
Specifically, the Canucks are looking for the type of character that drives a player to constantly improve their game instead of resting on their laurels. Think of someone like Bo Horvat, whose drive to get better has taken him from a player with a supposed ceiling of third-line centre to a high-end second-line, if not borderline first-line, centre.
“When you draft character players, they do everything they can to make the team,” said Jim Benning heading into his first draft with the Canucks back in 2014. It’s something Judd Brackett has repeatedly mentioned since he was promoted to director of amateur scouting. As much as watching games and analysing data can tell you about a player’s potential, figuring out if they have the right personality to take the next step is also important.
That type of character often goes hand-in-hand with leadership. If not the charismatic, rah-rah, give-a-rousing-speech-in-the-locker-room leadership, the quieter, lead-by-example type of leadership. These players often end up as captains of their junior teams, setting the tone for the rest of their team with their hard work on and off the ice.
It’s fitting, then, that the Canucks could have a couple of their prospects captaining their national teams at the 2020 World Junior Championship.
Toni Utunen has a long history with the Finnish national team, first appearing on Team Finland at 14 in the World Selects Invitational tournament. He’s been a captain a couple times: with the U-16 team at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games and with the U-18 team at the 2018 World Under-18 Championships, where he led Finland to a silver medal.
Now Utunen wants to be captain of Finland for the World Juniors.
“I wish I could be captain and show example for the guys,” said Utunen. “Show that we can do it.”
Utunen has first-hand experience that Finland can win gold at the World Juniors. He was part of the Finnish team that stunned everyone last year, winning gold despite icing a younger team that featured few high-end stars beyond 17-year-old Kaapo Kakko. While it initially seemed like Utunen was just on the team for experience heading into the 2020 tournament, he was on the top pairing by the gold medal game.
“He’s a captain-caliber type of player,” said assistant coach Tuomo Ruutu. “He was a captain in the Under-18s and one of the leaders last year as well, as an underaged [player]...I think he leads by example on the ice.”
Utunen has worn the captain’s “C” for some of Finland’s friendlies during the summer, as has fellow defenceman Ville Heinola, who was also on the gold medal team last year. Utunen is a year older than Heinola, however, and his more extensive experience as a captain for Finland in past tournaments could give him the edge in being named captain for the World Juniors.
There’s another prospect in the Canucks’ system with extensive experience as a captain in international tournaments: Vasili Podkolzin.
The Canucks’ top pick in 2019 has been a captain for Russia in three different major tournaments: the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, 2018 World Junior A Challenge, and the 2019 World Under-18 Championship.
“He's a captain of his teams,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning at the draft. “I thought even at the World Junior for a 17-year-old kid, his work ethic and his competitiveness, he was a leader for the Russian team as a young player.”
It’s unusual for a 17 year old to get significant minutes for Russia at the World Juniors, but Podkolzin’s ice time and role grew as the tournament went on. That experience and his leadership ability could make him a candidate to be captain at the 2020 World Juniors.
As an example of Podkolzin’s leadership, he reportedly volunteered to speak to the media at last year’s World Juniors when Russia disappointedly didn’t qualify for the gold medal game, despite being the youngest player on the team.
“He’s a good leader because he can motivate boys on the bench or on the ice and the guys really like him,” said Ilya Nikolayev, Podkolzin’s linemate at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
Vladimir Filatov, the head coach for Russia’s under-18 team, described Podkolzin as “the heart and the leader” of his team: “Leadership is one of his strongest qualities...He is an example for his teammates and deserves to be captain.”
Igor Dekin, Podkolzin’s coach in youth hockey, said that he’s more than just a leader on the ice. “In his last year of school hockey, he grew up a lot and became wiser. It happened that after my speech in the locker room, he would ask me to leave to have a short speech himself.”
With all that in mind, would it be surprising to see Podkolzin named captain of Russia for the World Junior Championship? Perhaps a more experienced 19 year old will get the job, but there’s a strong argument to be made for Podkolzin.
That’s two potential captains. Are there any others? Probably not, but the Canucks should have a few other prospects at the tournament.
Karel Plasek played for Czechia at last year’s World Juniors and should take on a larger role in his second opportunity. Nils Hoglander seems like a safe bet to play for Sweden, though he missed the World Junior Summer Showcase to focus on his off-season training.
Jett Woo, who was a late cut from Team Canada last year, should be on the team this year, no matter what Craig Button thinks. He could be joined by fellow Canucks prospect Carson Focht, though he’s more of a long shot at this point.
Beyond that group, it would take a very strong start to the season for other Canucks prospects to get on the radar of their national teams. There’s an outside chance that Jack Malone makes Team USA with an impressive start to his freshman season at Cornell University. He represented his country at the 2018 World Junior A Challenge. Arvid Costmar could also be a possibility for Sweden, having played at both the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and World Under-18 Championships.
Finally, Arturs Silovs could play for Team Latvia at the World Juniors, but Latvia was relegated from the top division in 2017, losing to Olli Juolevi’s Finnish team in the relegation round. Latvia will look to earn promotion back to the top division from Division 1-A.