As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs continue to slip out of reach for the Vancouver Canucks, the fanbase is slowly shifting its hopes over to another ‘P’ word.
And no, we don’t mean “phired.” We’re talking, of course, about Vasily Podkolzin.
Even if the Canucks remain in the league’s basement throughout the next month, fans can at least look forward to the arrival of yet another dynamite prospect ready to make an immediate impact at the NHL level.
And as soon as Podkolzin’s KHL season is done, it’s go-time, right?
Well, it’s complicated.
(Uh huh, life’s like this, uh huh, uh huh, that’s the way it is).
It is true that Podkolzin is about to begin the second round of the KHL playoffs with SKA St. Petersburg, facing off against Dynamo Moskva in the Conference Semi-Finals. Game one kicks off on March 18.
And it is true that Dynamo finished with a slightly better record than SKA in the regular season, and are thus the favourites, which could mean that Podkolzin is eliminated before April rolls around.
But that doesn’t quite mean that he’s free to sign with Vancouver at that point.
Technically-speaking, the KHL season runs until April 30, which is also the date that most expiring KHL contracts end. Usually, NHL and KHL teams are able to work out a handshake transfer agreement for players eliminated from the playoffs before that date, but there’s nothing in writing saying that they have to.
And that’s only the first complication.
Podkolzin’s contract in particular covers the 2021 World Hockey Championship, too, originally scheduled for May 21st to June 6th in Riga, Latvia. Against all odds, the WHC is one of the few 2021 tournaments on the IIHF to not already be cancelled, and all indications are that tournament organizers are still intending to proceed as planned.
Again, SKA and the KHL could reach an agreement with the Canucks to release Podkolzin from this obligation early, which seems especially likely if they don’t anticipate him earning a spot on Team Russia.
Again, there’s nothing that says they have to.
But assuming that all that comes to pass — that SKA is eliminated soon, Podkolzin isn’t needed for the WHC, and the KHL is kind enough to let him out of his contract early — there are still those that would prefer the Canucks NOT sign Podkolzin for the remainder of the 2021 season.
Before we get to those folks and their reasons, there are — believe it or not — a few more key complications to clarify.
Yes, Podkolzin would be eligible to join and play for the Canucks in the 2021 season, if those contractual issues can be ironed out. Even if he joins after the April 12 Trade Deadline, he can play.
Why can Podkolzin suit up, when the likes of Kirill Kaprizov and Alexander Romanov could not last year? They joined their teams under the auspices of a special set of rules designed only for the return-to-play agreement and its unique circumstances.
Why can Podkolzin join the Canucks this year, and not Nikita Tryamkin?
Because Tryamkin is an RFA who has already been under NHL contract in the past. The rules are different for players signing their ELC, like Podkolzin.
But if those factors aren’t going to keep him off the ice, why do some fans and pundits want the Canucks to wait until the 2021/22 season to get him into the lineup?
It all comes down to the “burning” of one of his ELC years.
Normally, if a player dresses for 10 games in a season, one of their three ELC years is completed, and they’re that much closer to their next, and presumably more expensive, contract.
In the truncated 2021 season, however, that threshold has been reduced to just seven games.
And so, there are those who would prefer that Podkolzin be kept out of the lineup altogether, or at least held to six games or fewer. This would ensure that the Canucks could have Podkolzin on an affordable cap hit from 2021/22 until the end of 2023/24, and that’s obviously a big help to a team that is hoping to be competitive during that same window.
Those folks are absolutely right that not burning a year off Podkolzin’s ELC is optimal asset management.
But it’s still the wrong call.
First and foremost, getting Podkolzin out of Russia and into the Canucks’ organization is priority number one. Our own Chris Faber has been on the Podkolzin beat all season long, and specifically that of Podkolzin’s apparent mistreatment by the SKA coaching staff — which even continued into the KHL playoffs, until the coaches decided they needed him to win.
There are those who would suggest that Podkolzin might be so ready to come to Vancouver that Jim Benning and Co. have no need to further entice him with the prospect of a burnt ELC year. And they’d probably be right, but the Canucks should still do it anyway.
Consider the precedence of Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes. Both completed their NCAA careers and joined the Canucks late in a regular season, and both found immediate success. Not only that, they then translated that success into Calder-worthy rookie campaigns the very next year.
We’re not here to suggest that Boeser and Hughes’ strong starts at the NHL level are solely the result of their early auditions, but those auditions clearly played a role in starting them off on the right foot.
And the right foot is where Podkolzin should start, too.
Never mind the fact that, with Tanner Pearson’s likely departure, Podkolzin is going to be thrust into a top-six spot as early as next year. Like Boeser and Hughes before him, Podkolzin will need all the warmup he can get before eating big minutes as a rookie.
All indications are that this is a young player who loves the game of hockey, and who plays it with a rare blend of passion, drive, and intensity. When he arrives in British Columbia, he’s going to want to hit the ice and never get off it.
Imagine the disappointment he might feel if he were kept out of the lineup for contractual purposes.
Podkolzin’s been a total pro through some questionable deployment and negotiation tactics in Russia, never once uttering a complaint despite ample reason for it. We’re not suggesting he’d pout, whine, or otherwise express displeasure if the Canucks decided to sit him.
But he’s still just a kid, and he would be disappointed.
Do we really want Podkolzin to start his Canucks career in a state of disappointment?
No, of course not. We want Podkolzin to start his Canucks career in the same state that Boeser and Hughes did: full of the sort of confident exuberance that can carry him into his first full season ready to dominate.
When we say “we,” we’re of course talking about the Vancouver fanbase.
And, in that case, we definitely matter.
The 2021 season has not been an incredibly enjoyable one for those dedicated to the Canucks. That getting Podkolzin into game action as early and as frequently as possible would provide something for long-suffering fans to get excited about is not a nonfactor.
In fact, it might be the factor in deciding to eschew asset management in this particular instance, and burn that extra ELC year to the ground.
Fundamentally inefficient? Sure.
But also fun for us, fun for Vasily, and fun for the players, who get to add yet another dynamic young talent to the mix.
And if hockey isn’t fun, then, really, what’s the point?