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Young ‘bull’ Podkolzin pushing through adversity to make his mark for Canucks

NEW YORK – Time accelerates with age.

Years that last forever when you’re in elementary school skip past like fence posts on the highway when you’re older. It would be nice if you fully understood the preciousness of time when you’re young and everything is new and limitless. When emotional highs and lows are made keener by the lack of context and experience.

At age 20, Vasily Podkolzin was a National Hockey League rookie on top of the world. He scored 14 goals in limited ice time for the Vancouver Canucks, was hailed as budding star and viewed as a vital building block to better things.

At age 21, this season, he felt like his career was over when the Canucks demoted him to the American Hockey League on Nov. 29 after 16 goal-less games and a bunch of healthy scratches.

“Pods, when he came down first, he was down,” Henrik Sedin, a player-development coach for the Canucks, told Sportsnet. “I think he thought that this was the end of his NHL career. Like, he was really down. Our message to him was mostly that he’s so young, in 10 years when he’s played 700 games in the NHL, he’s going to look back at this period as something really positive.”

He already does.

A Canucks teammate remarked this week that Podkolzin looked like an entirely different player when he re-emerged from minor-league Abbotsford – faster, more engaged, more detailed in his game and more confident.

The Russian winger was immediately praised by new Canucks coach Rick Tocchet – “He’s a bull out there; I like this kid a lot” – and scored in his second game back, Wednesday’s 4-3 loss against the New York Rangers.

Podkolzin is a fascinating test case for the Canucks’ new player-development strategy under general manager Patrik Allvin, who last fall removed his top few prospects from the struggling NHL team so that they could build their game and confidence in the AHL under coach Jeremy Colliton and his staff.

Nils Aman, whose speed and hockey IQ allowed him to make the Canucks in October as a 22-year-old rookie straight out of the Swedish Hockey League, was also brought back to the NHL team this week after a month in the minors and scored in Thursday’s 6-5 win against the New York Islanders.

Tocchet loves his new fourth line of Aman, Curtis Lazar and Phil DiGiuseppe, who created Aman’s rebound goal and somehow amassed seven shots on net in 12:34 of ice time on Long Island.

Other key prospects Nils Hoglander, Jack Rathbone and Aatu Raty continue to work with Colliton and his staff in Abbotsford.

“The first two weeks was so hard to me, like, mentally,” Podkolzin said of his demotion from the NHL team. “I feel good physically, my body, but mentally was hard. OK, it’s life, it’s new challenge for me. In my career … like junior league, KHL, NHL, it was, like, easy to get it, you know? And then I got (sent) down to AHL. It’s (a) challenge, another challenge in my career in my life. But I think I’m still young and this is normal for young guys. I think I bring from there so many good things.”

Like many young, talented players, Podkolzin had never really experienced failure or self-doubt until he reached the NHL. Not much was expected from him as a rookie. Twenty goals and top-nine minutes felt like reasonable expectations as a sophomore.

“So many guys told me, like, second season will be tough, should be harder,” Podkolzin said. “And yeah, I got it. You do whatever you need, just working, and I try to stay strong mentality. That’s the most important thing.

“That’s a lesson for me about myself as player, as (a) person as well. It’s about hockey (but also) out of hockey. You should like to stay strong mentality, trying to think positive and working every day — working, working. For me, it’s a big challenge, been a big challenge. I just want to be better like a player, like a (better) person as well. (These) two months, I think it’s so important for me in my career.”

Podkolzin, the 10th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, didn’t exactly blow away AHL competition with seven goals and 18 points in 28 games. But he built more detail and consistency into his game and, importantly, regained confidence. He said he felt so much better about himself by the end of his time in Abbotsford than when he arrived.

“Of course, the coaching staff, head coach Jeremy, helped me,” he said. “But also, I’d like to say, the Sedins. They talked to me so much, and working with me before the practice and after the practice as well. They were always talking to me and I began to feel better. They said this just happens sometimes; just work hard … and try to be positive. Sometimes that’s hard, but they’re so helpful for me to be back here.”

“We said that when we took this role,” Henrik said, including brother Daniel, “that our biggest thing was going to be the mental part of the game with a lot of these young guys. People that view us as like these great (Hall of Fame) players, they tend to forget the early years. We never played in the minors, but we have been third-liners, we’ve played 10 minutes, we were scratched in games, benched in games, questioned ourselves. We’ve been through it all. So that’s a positive, I think, for us when we talk to these players. We understand where they come from.

“After that first week or 10 days, Pods’ attitude has been through the roof. He’s a guy that everything is team-first. He’s very unselfish. He wants the team to do well. So that’s why it’s so nice to see him come back and hopefully he can be successful. For him, I think it’s more confidence, it’s believing that he can be contributing every night at this level.”

After three games in four days in the New York area, the Canucks rested Friday in Detroit, where their four-game trip ends with a noon ET / 9 a.m. PT game Saturday against the Red Wings.


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