NHL hockey is a lot closer than you might think. The Canucks’ prospect camp opens in less than two weeks, with the first on-ice session on September 7th at Rogers Arena. Less than a week after that, main training camp will kick off on September 13th in Victoria, which will also host a preseason game on September 16th, with split-squad games planned against the Flames in Victoria and Calgary.
That means we’re just three weeks away from (mostly) NHL players in NHL jerseys playing on (mostly) NHL ice.
For some, that’s too long to wait. Fortunately for the impatient, there was some hockey over the weekend to tide them over. The city of Perm in Russia hosted the Four Nations U20 Tournament, featuring Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Czechia, all of whom were required to chemically curl their hair before participating.
Okay, maybe not that last part.
Three of the Canucks’ 2019 draft picks took part in the tournament: Nils Hoglander and Arvid Costmar for Sweden and Vasili Podkolzin for Russia. There was no Karel Plasek for Czechia, as he is dealing with a minor injury, while Toni Utunen was left off the Finnish team.
That’s nothing to worry about for Utunen: he’s a lock for the World Juniors after his performance last year and could even be Finland’s captain. Different countries treat these summer tournaments in different ways, with some primarily using them to evaluate players on the bubble, while others use them to develop chemistry and train together. Other players expected to play for Finland at the World Juniors, like Ville Heinola and Anttoni Honka, were also not on their Four Nations roster.
Russia, on the other hand, generally likes to use the same roster, or close to it, in these tournaments that they plan to use at the World Juniors. That’s particularly true for a tournament hosted in Russia, as they want to perform well for their fans in attendance, so their roster included not only Podkolzin, but other top NHL prospects like Grigory Denisenko, Kirill Marchenko, and Pavel Dorofeyev.
Podkolzin was a standout for Russia, but somehow didn’t tally a single point. It might even be considered a bit of a pattern for Podkolzin at this point: outstanding performances that just don’t show up on the scoresheet. It’s still not a big concern — he still scored a plethora of goals last season — but it certainly would be nice to see an uptick in production in both league play and international tournaments in the coming season.
What stands out about Podkolzin’s performance at the Four Nations tournament is how he used his linemates. That should assuage the concerns of Canucks fans who saw highlight reels full of solo dashes up the ice, but not a lot of vision and playmaking. You can see how he created chances galore for his linemates in this highlight reel from the tournament’s final game against Finland, as compiled by Daniel Gee.
Podkolzin is number 11 for Russia in the red and white. You can see his usual transition work as he breaks the puck out and into the Finland zone, but also some slick passes to set up zone entries and scoring chances.
One particularly notable sequence comes 20 seconds into the video. Podkolzin loses the puck to a Finnish defenceman as he tries to gain the zone, but dashes back to break up the counterattack with a nice stick check on #14 for Finland, then dodges his check to get to the puck first and break it out of the defensive zone.
The bank pass up the boards at around 1:05 into the video is also a wonderful surprise, springing a 2-on-1 that unfortunately leads to nothing.
That’s a trend in the video — great plays by Podkolzin that die on his teammates’ sticks. The sequence at 1:25 is a great example. Podkolzin steals a puck in the neutral zone, drives around a defender, then Alexander Romanov, a second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2018, takes too long to get the shot off and gets robbed by Finnish goaltender Kari Piiroinen.
If you want a truly comprehensive look at Podkolzin’s tournament, YouTuber ihaveyuidonttouchme has uploaded videos that capture almost every minute he was on the ice this weekend.
Here’s his performance against Czechia on Friday, August 23rd.
It’s similar to the highlight video against Finland: lots of cutting through the neutral zone, driving to the net, and creating chances for both himself and his linemates, but, once again, no points.
I particularly like his board battle at around 9:40 in the video, as he outworks two Czechian skaters to keep the play alive while waiting for help from linemates that just never shows up.
You can also see more of his work in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill, however, to get a better idea of his two-way play. He looks simultaneously disciplined and aggressive, staying in good defensive position until an opportunity comes to win the puck, when he attacks. He needs a little work on his shot-blocking technique, however, as he opens up his body in a dangerous way and gets hurt at around 11:10 into the video. He left the ice for a while, but eventually returned and played the rest of the tournament, so is clearly okay.
For instance, he was fine the next day against Sweden.
His move 50 seconds into the video to gain the offensive zone is sweet. He executes a lovely give-and-go at 8:15 before driving to the net for a great chance. His entire shift starting around 9:50 is worth watching, as he repeatedly steals pucks to keep the shift alive in the offensive zone and sets up chances for his linemates.
Finally, there was the game against Finland on Sunday, August 25th.
Podkolzin’s best offensive moments against Finland are in the highlight video, but his play without the puck is worth watching as well. He never neglects his defensive duties, battles hard along the boards, and makes himself available for passes with smart routes and positioning on breakouts.
Watching these videos, it’s hard to see Podkolzin’s lack of points as anything other than bad luck. He created numerous chances, both for himself and for his linemates, and either through stellar goaltender and defensive efforts, or a lack of finish, the puck just never went in.
In addition, his vision and passing in these videos shows another dimension to Podkolzin’s game beyond the power-forward transition game. It’s going to be extremely tough waiting two years to see how Podkolzin complements that Canucks’ other young stars like Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.