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Can the Canucks sign Podkolzin this season? It’s complicated and could depend on COVID-19

Vasily Podkolzin is finishing off the final season of his KHL contract, but he might not be able to sign with the Canucks immediately after it ends.
Vasili Podkolzin dons a Vancouver Canucks hat at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. photo: Jonathan Hayward / CP

It feels like a question that should be easy to answer: when can the Canucks sign their top prospect, Vasily Podkolzin? Specifically, will he be able to play for the Canucks in the coming season or will fans have to wait until the 2021-22 season to see the Russian power forward take to the ice at Rogers Arena?

Surprisingly, the answer to that question is far more murky and unclear than you might expect.

Podkolzin is currently in the final year of his contract with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL. That season ends on April 30th, 2021. The assumption of most fans is that Podkolzin can sign with the Canucks after that date and, with the NHL season delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there should still be a decent amount of the regular season remaining to be played. 

With that in mind, Podkolzin could sign with the Canucks and make an impact in the team’s drive to make the 2021 playoffs. He would fit a distinct need on the right wing and has the type of mature defensive game to quickly earn the trust of a head coach like Travis Green.

Except, it’s not that simple.

Complications and technicalities

An NHL player agent that works with Russian players confirmed that KHL contracts do expire on April 30th and free agents can then sign with NHL teams. According to Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning, however, there’s one other issue.

“Technically, his contract goes to the end of the World Championship,” said Benning. “That’s when his contract technically ends.”

The 2021 IIHF World Championship is set to take place from May 21st to June 6th in Riga, Latvia, and Moscow, Russia. If Podkolzin isn’t available to sign with the Canucks until after that tournament, then he wouldn’t be available until after the start of the NHL playoffs, with no guarantee that the Canucks will even be in the postseason.

The NHL needs to complete the playoffs before the start of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan due to television contracts. The 2020 Olympics, postponed for a year due to COVID-19, begin July 23rd, and the NHL requires approximately two months for the playoffs.

There’s a distinct possibility, however, that the 2021 World Championship never take place. The IIHF has cancelled dozens of other international tournaments, with only the 2021 World Junior Championship remaining from their winter schedule. If the COVID-19 pandemic forces the cancellation of the 2021 World Championship, then there would be nothing keeping him from signing with the Canucks.

“They haven't been cancelled yet, but I'll be very surprised if they have the World Championships,” said Benning. “Then we can contact the Russian Federation and IIHF and ask them since the World Championships are going to be cancelled, then we can sign him early.”

There’s something odd here, however. If KHL contracts end on April 30th, how can they run through the end of the World Championship? 

This issue hasn’t seemed to come up in the past. For instance, the Vegas Golden Knights were able to sign Nikita Gusev prior to the World Championship two years ago after he led the KHL in scoring while playing for SKA. For reasons known only to themselves, the Golden Knights chose not to put Gusev in the lineup when they lost in the first round to the San Jose Sharks. Gusev went on to play for Russia in the 2019 World Championship and put up 16 points in 10 games.

For a Canucks example, there’s Nikita Tryamkin, who signed with the Canucks in 2016 after his KHL team, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, was knocked out of the playoffs. 

“The reason we got to sign Tryamkin in March, the same sort of setup, was he wasn’t going to be on the World Championship team,” said Benning. “So the KHL said we could sign him early.”

The key to understanding the discrepancy between the April 30th date as the end of a KHL contract appears to lie in the IIHF Transfer Agreement.

The IIHF and player transfers

The IIHF is the international governing body for ice hockey, overseeing not only international tournaments, but also overseeing player transfers between leagues. For transfers between European leagues, the IIHF has a set procedure that must be followed. If a player wants to go from the Finnish Liiga to the Swedish SHL, the entire process has to follow IIHF rules and be confirmed by the IIHF.

Where things get complicated is that the NHL and KHL are not IIHF member leagues, so the rules and procedures for transferring between European leagues don’t apply.

The NHL has Player Transfer Agreements with most European countries and leagues, adding an agreement with Switzerland and the Swiss League back in April. These agreements allow NHL teams to sign players from these countries even if they’re under contract. In exchange, the NHL team pays a transfer fee to that country’s ice hockey federation.

Those transfer fees get distributed to the teams that held that player’s rights, giving them a significant financial boost for developing a player good enough to get signed in the NHL. That allows them to invest that money on coaches, facilities, and training, so there’s a long-term benefit for the teams, even if they lose a star player in the short term. 

The Player Transfer Agreements are a mutually beneficial system: the NHL gets the best players in the world and their home countries get more money from the richest league in the world.

The NHL and the KHL have no such agreement.

Do we have an understanding?

Instead of an agreement, the NHL and KHL have an “understanding.” The two leagues respect each others’ contracts and won’t sign a player under contract to a team from the other league.

That’s why the Canucks couldn’t sign Podkolzin any sooner. He’s under contract in the KHL and there’s no mechanism to get him out of that contract: no transfer fee, no buyout, nothing. 

Once that contract ends, Podkolzin isn’t entirely free, however. In order to transfer to Canada and sign with the Canucks, he needs an International Transfer Card (ITC). The Canucks, as his new team, would start the process, which would need to be approved by the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia.

There are four reasons why a national federation can refuse to sign an ITC under rule 2.2(c) in the IIHF’s International Transfer Regulations. The first is if that player is signed to a professional player contract, but the second is the one that seems to apply here.

“The former member national association may only refuse to sign the transfer card if: the player wishing to transfer has not fulfilled his contractual obligations to his former club (all contractual obligations other than those involving signed professional player contracts).”

Here’s where the discrepancy is resolved: KHL contracts do, in fact, expire on April 30th. Players can, however, have other contractual obligations and one of those obligations could be to play in the World Hockey Championship if that player is selected for the roster of his national team.

Is Podkolzin likely to get selected for Team Russia? It’s not out of the question. He’ll be just a few weeks short of 20 years old and Russia has brought along top 20 year olds to the World Championships in recent years. And there’s a reason why he has been named captain of Russia’s World Junior team.

It’s likely that Russia wouldn’t even need to select Podkolzin to the roster, but could simply refuse to release him from his obligation because they might need him for the World Championship.

“We would have to get approval to sign [Podkolzin] early. They’d have to release him from his contract that he’s on right now,” said Benning. “The NHL and the Ruussian Federation have an understanding on the contract, and that’s what the understanding is.”

So…can the Canucks sign Podkolzin?

What’s the answer to the question? Can the Canucks sign Podkolzin to play this season? It depends.

If the 2021 World Championship is cancelled due to COVID-19, Russia would have no reason to deny Podkolzin’s ITC. He could be released from his contractual obligation and sign with the Canucks once his KHL season ends on April 30th.

Even if it’s not cancelled, Russia could still release Podkolzin from his obligation and he could sign with the Canucks, same as Nikita Tryamkin and Nikita Gusev.

There’s even a possibility that Podkolzin could sign before April 30th if SKA gets knocked out of the playoffs earlier and the KHL and Russian Federation agree to release Podkolzin from his contract early, just as they did with Tryamkin.

Or none of those possibilities could come to fruition and Podkolzin would be unable to sign with the Canucks until after the 2021 World Championship ends on June 6th. In that case, the only way Podkolzin could play for the Canucks in the coming season is if they make the postseason and are still in the playoffs when Podkolzin becomes available.

While fans are eager to see Podkolzin suit up for the Canucks, the wait could be just a little longer than anticipated.