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Better Late Than Never: Last-minute WJC addition Podkolzin turns heads

Vasili Podkolzin wasn't a no-doubt selection for the Russian squad at the World Junior Championship. He made the cut, though, and rocketed up the draft board with his play at the tournament.

Valeri Bragin, Russia’s coach at the world juniors, is as intimidating as they come. But even he couldn’t help smiling when asked about right winger Vasili Podkolzin. “I like him,” Bragin said through a translator. “He’s a hard worker and a great player.”

Podkolzin looks like a top-five NHL draft pick for 2019, but it took some heavy work for him to earn his spot on the eventual WJC bronze medallists in Vancouver. He didn’t get a camp invite at first, but his play at December’s World Jr. A Challenge in Alberta meant he could not be ignored. Podkolzin tied for the tourney lead in scoring with eight points in six games and was named a WJAC all-star while helping Russia to silver. “I got great confidence when I was invited to the under-20 team camp,” Podkolzin said through a translator. “It was a new level of emotions.”

And the kid was no quiet entry. Podkolzin plays a physical and fiery game with a lot of power and skill to go with it, earning a spot on Russia’s second line at the world juniors. At times his temper can get him in trouble, but any coach will tell you it’s easier to pull a player back than it is to push one who is too reserved. Even with some penalties and defensive hiccups, Podkolzin’s positives far outweighed the negatives in Vancouver, and the proof was in the fact Bragin kept giving solid minutes to his youngest charge. “There were ups and downs,” Podkolzin said, “but I feel great that the coach trusted me.”

Podkolzin had good WJC numbers but didn’t have to lead the scoring charge for Russia, whose dominant top line of Grigori Denisenko (Florida), Vitali Kravtsov (Rangers) and Klim Kostin (St. Louis) took care of it. The youngster looked up to each. Captain Kostin was Podkolzin’s tourney roommate. “We talked about the games after, and he’s a good guy,” Kostin said. “He works hard, he’s smart, he works hard in the ‘D’ zone, and he’s a good player.”

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