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It's time for Canucks' Podkolzin to prove he belongs in the NHL

The Canucks' first-round pick from 2019 has finally been called up from the AHL.
Vasily Podkolzin is firing on all cylinders to start the season in the AHL with the Abbotsford Canucks.

On Friday, the Vancouver Canucks sent Arshdeep Bains back to the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL after a five-game stint with the big club.

Bains held his own in some difficult minutes, earning a look in the top-six and on the power play. He showed a knack for creating scoring chances for his linemates, even if they couldn't quite find the finish to get Bains his first NHL point. At the same time, Bains had some difficulties adapting to NHL speed, getting into some penalty trouble and missing some defensive reads.   

"We really like him a lot," said head coach Rick Tocchet. "The intention was for him to come up for two or three games. Obviously, if he's lighting up, you're going to make a different decision.

"I thought he handled himself well. We haven't been winning, so you want to protect him in the environment too....I think he knows, next time he comes up, he's going to be a lot better for it. The next that comes up, can we do the same with that guy?"

It turns out that next guy will be Vasily Podkolzin, who the Canucks called up on Sunday along with veteran defenceman Matt Irwin, who was brought up as insurance with Tyler Myers out and Carson Soucy still needing more time to return from injury. 

"He's just got to play almost a little reckless."

This is a prime opportunity for Podkolzin to prove himself to the Canucks that he can be an impactful NHL forward. In fact, with just three games remaining before the NHL trade deadline, this may very well be his last chance to prove himself to the Canucks. If the Canucks want to add another piece via trade, Podkolzin could potentially be part of the package going the other way. 

The Canucks badly need another winger to round out their top-six group. In an ideal world, Podkolzin would show that he can be that winger.

Podkolzin showed his potential as a rookie two seasons ago, scoring 14 goals with limited ice time in the 2021-22 season. He looked particularly good on a line with Elias Pettersson and Nils Höglander. Since then, however, Podkolzin has struggled.

Last season, Podkolzin looked like he lacked confidence and was constantly in his own head, thinking about what he needed to do and where he needed to go instead of playing on instinct. That continued at training camp and in the preseason, where he got an opportunity to play with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser and squandered it. He struggled to adapt to the demands of Tocchet's system and was sent to the AHL to start the season.

"Podzy's just got to let it hang,” said Tocchet in the summer. “He's just got to play almost a little reckless.”

“I think when he gets in trouble, he receives the puck and then he makes his decision,” he added. “It seems like, he's getting it and he just wants to, you know, make that safe play, whether it's a chip up the boards when sometimes nobody's on you. That's the time to make a play or move your feet.”

A strong start in the AHL derailed by a concussion

In the AHL with the Abbotsford Canucks, Podkolzin let it hang, putting up five goals and seven points in his first six games. Unfortunately, that's when his season was derailed by a dangerous hit that saw him stretchered off the ice.

When Podkolzin returned to action a month later, it took him time to get back into the groove of the season. Podkolzin has seen several scoring droughts this season and has just two points in his last seven games. He's currently sixth on the Abbotsford Canucks in points, though he is second in goals, with 15 goals and 28 points in 44 games.

Where he's taken significant steps forward, however, is in his systems play. The Canucks play the same system in Abbotsford as they do in Vancouver, giving Podkolzin more time to sort out what's required of him in terms of X's and O's. This has given him more confidence in his puck pursuit, both on the forecheck and in the defensive zone, allowing him to leverage some of the best qualities of his game.

That should lead to Podkolzin being a more effective two-way player at the NHL level and one that Tocchet can trust to play in more situations.

While Podkolzin's 28 points in 44 games may not inspire much enthusiasm, it's similar to the numbers Höglander produced last season at the same age: 14 goals and 32 points in 45 games. What mattered for Höglander was that he developed his play away from the puck, which has paid off this season. The hope is that Podkolzin has made similar progress.

If he has, Podkolzin could be a legitimate difference-maker for the Canucks. When he's at his best, Podkolzin is a menace on the forecheck and can free up pucks for whoever he plays with. On top of that, Podkolzin is an underrated playmaker and has the potential to be a net-crashing power forward.

Is Podkolzin ready to break through in the NHL, two seasons after making his debut?


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