VANCOUVER — Three minutes into overtime on Monday, Vasily Podkolzin found himself on the ice for the Vancouver Canucks. And it wasn’t because he fell off the bench.
The 21-year-old winger, who was sent to the minors in November for remedial work and spent nearly half the season there, was sent out in OT by Canucks coach Rick Tocchet as reward for Podkolzin’s strong, diligent game in a depth role. The Russian had also scored on a first-period deflection.
It would be a great story if Podkolzin had scored in OT, but his lone three-on-three shot was saved by Nashville Predators goalie Jusse Saros, who didn’t allow a goal until Elias Pettersson shot through his pads in the shootout as the Canucks won 4-3 at Rogers Arena.
But Podkolzin’s three-on-three twirl was still an important story — about his season and the relatively new head coach and the change in culture finally underway on a team that is about to miss the National Hockey League playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons.
There is opportunity with Tocchet. If you play the right way by working as hard to prevent goals as score them, winning more puck battles than you lose and doing other thankless, difficult things to help the team win, you will be rewarded.
Podkolzin’s 33-second shift increased his overtime time-on-ice total this season to 33 seconds.
The second-year Canuck, forced to confront in the minors his own role in his sophomore slump, has the same opportunity to earn more ice time as everyone else.
Just like, say, rookie checking centre Nils Aman did three games ago in Dallas when he logged 20:02 of ice time in a 5-4 win. Or as journeyman forward Phil DiGiuseppe has almost since the moment he was recalled from the American Hockey League soon after Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau six weeks ago. Or as minor-league goalie Arturs Silovs did on Monday when he was recalled due to backup Collin Delia’s illness and was given the chance to start against the Predators because he had played so well during a four-game callup in February.
Even the stars are getting their ice time portions on merit these days. Like outstanding rookie Andrei Kuzmenko, who saw his TOI under the new coach plummet to a low of 10:35 one month ago, but hit 19 minutes for six straight games before the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.
“I played (under Tocchet) for three years in Arizona and my minutes went from 11 to 14 to 18,” Canuck winger Conor Garland said. “When you play the right way, you get more minutes and you get rewarded. The best thing with him is, like, a wall battle can be just as big as a goal. If you get a puck out, that’s big and that’s why you’re going to go back out there next shift.
“Every guy wants to play for him because (winning) is not up to three guys that feel like they’re deciding the game. Every guy has a role. It’s not like he just opens the door for guys who can put the puck in the net at a high rate. You earn what you get.”
So, there was Podkolzin in overtime, along with newly acquired Vitali Kravtsov and defenceman Christian Wolanin, another AHL recall. Tocchet used 11 skaters in OT.
It’s not three guys deciding the game, although Pettersson, Kuzmenko and Quinn Hughes have been good enough to decide several of them this season.
“I’m a young guy, and I know my role right now,” Podkolzin said after just his third goal in 30 NHL games this season. “I need to play strong. I need to get the trust from coaches … and I think they will give me more minutes. I understand my role here. I can score goals also but, like, I can’t score 30 right now. But I can do some some good things for the team and then just build for rest of the season for next year as well. Because next year is going to be the most important in my career.”
That kind of attitude is not great for tanking, but it is good for the culture Tocchet is building.
“That’s changing,” veteran J.T. Miller, another player who has responded favourably to greater accountability, told reporters after the morning skate on Monday. “It has to because what we were doing before clearly wasn’t working. So, there’s a process for us to take to get to where we want to be, and I think for the most part, so far since Rick’s been here, it has been going the right direction.”
The Canucks yielded two late goals to the Predators to stumble into overtime. But it was still the sixth time in eight games they’d allowed three or fewer. They’re not quite winning a Jennings Trophy doing that over a full season, but remember that Tocchet took over a 27th-place team that was 31st in defending.
Better goaltending has helped immensely.
Silovs stopped 29 of 32 shots to nudge his save percentage to .908. Starter Thatcher Demko has posted a .937 save rate in three games since he returned from injury.
“When you play more games at this level, you’re getting more confident, right?” Silovs, 21, said. “You gain experience and it translates in games. I think it’s really good that I’m getting those chances, but I’m using those chances, you know? I’m trying to do my best every single game.”
He learned only late Sunday night that he’d be playing in the NHL on Monday.
“I mean, it’s opportunity, right?” he said.
It is indeed.