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Developing Vasily Podkolzin: Russian Style

Will bouncing from team to team hurt Podz’s development?

NHL: NHL Draft Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It is an unavoidable human foible for one to evaluate other people and cultures through one’s own lens. I wonder if Canucks’ fans are guilty of a little hockey-centrism when viewing the haphazard, bouncing-ball development path of prized 2019 1st round pick Vasily Podkolzin?

In North America, we are used to a rules-based path for hockey players that is set from when they first lace up skates to when they make (or don’t make) the NHL.

Junior players play in the CHL. If they don’t make the NHL roster until a specific age. NCAA players cannot attend NHL camps unless they pay their own way. And so on it goes. Rule after rule, though sometimes cumbersome, making for a predictable system for development of the modern hockey player.

After Canada, Russia is and always has been the second most passionate nation in the world for the sport of ice hockey. I can already hear the voices of dissension from other great hockey-mad countries like the USA, Sweden, Finland and so on. But the birth of modern hockey took place in 1972 when a band of gritty, out-of-shape Canadian NHLers took on the now defunct Soviet Union’s crew of 5-men groups of emotionless automatons in the first and only true hockey war between the Communist East and the Capitalist West. While Canada’s heart and grit were victorious in the end, one could not help but appreciate the beauty of the machine-like Soviet passing and scoring prowess.

Fortunately the Cold War ended before it became hot. As the trickle of non-Canadian players playing in the NHL changed from a few into a flood of talent, all the best ideas on how to evolve the planet Earth’s coolest game came together and we now see it on a nightly basis in the NHL. Russians players have been a large part of that growth from Victor Nechayev, Sergei Priakin and Igor Larionov starting in the 1980s to Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Artemi Panarin now.

When I first looked at who Vasily Podkolzin follows on Twitter back when the Canucks’ first drafted him in June, there were only two NHL players he followed. They were Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. He has now added a third player NHL follow and that is the one and only Elias Pettersson. Have no fear: Vasily has a clear NHL goal in his mind. But Ovie and Geno are Russian hockey products from a different time when bouncing from league to league was not the norm, so they cannot be pointed at as reasons to not be worried about Podkolzin’s current plight.

However, you can look at more recent top picks from Russia and look at their Russian-style development and compare them to Podkolzin’s. What do you see when you look at players like Vitali Kravtsov and Kirill Marchenko? You see a similar approach of bouncing up and down between the MHL, VHL and KHL and various Russian International Junior teams and there is no evident harm caused to their development that can be shown.

When you think about it, isn’t Vasily Podkolzin currently in a similar situation to what Jake Virtanen was in during his 2015-16 season when he was too good for the CHL, not good enough for the NHL and ineligible except for a conditioning assignment in the AHL? What if Canucks’ coaching and management had had the ability to move Jake at will between Calgary, Utica and Vancouver that season? They could have built his confidence in the CHL, given him a reality check in the NHL and continued his hockey education in the AHL as they deemed best for his future. Would he be better off today? Probably. Certainly no worse off.

Canucks’ fans should put away their worries about the Russian-style development of Vasily Podkolzin. He has his eye on the prize, and that prize is suiting up for the Canucks sooner rather than later.