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Vasily Podkolzin’s much anticipated final KHL expected breakout season hits a snag

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Is Podkolzin’s KHL club trying to use ice time to pressure him to sign a contract extension?

Kontinental Hockey League: Avangard Omsk vs SKA St Petersburg
Kontinental Hockey League club SKA’s head coach Valeri Bragin looks on disapprovingly during a 2020/21 Regular Season game.
Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

The Vancouver Canucks’ numero uno blue-chip prospect Vasily Podkolzin works hard every shift, has a motor that doesn’t quit, plays fearlessly and is defensively responsible. So why is his ice time being limited this regular season so far by his head coach Valeri Bragin? Is it possible that Bragin is under orders from SKA’s management to do so in an effort to pressure Podkolzin to sign an extension with the KHL club instead of inking an Entry Level Contract with the Canucks’ in May 2021?

Curious indeed.

Back in March 2020, when the KHL brass decided to pull the plug on its 2019/20 playoffs season due to the increasing threat of the coronavirus, Podkolzin was emerging as a top six forward stud for SKA. He had scored one goal and added two assists for three points in his first four professional playoff games. He averaged a time-on-ice of 14 minutes and 25 seconds per game for those four games. This large increase occurred after he only got on the ice for a measly 8 minutes and 49 seconds per game for SKA during the regular season. But for the untimely intervention of Covid-19, it appeared he was destined to be a key cog in SKA’s hopes to raise the Gagarin Cup above their heads.

Vancouver Canucks’ fans were expecting him to have a breakout final year in the KHL this season while getting top six forward minutes plus both power play and penalty killing ice time. While SKA’s preseason games gave every indication that this vision was going to come to fruition, so far all of Podkolzin’s ice time has been even strength on the club’s fourth line with a brief short appearance for part of one game on the team’s third line.

Despite being relegated to the fourth line in the club’s season opener, he got off to a good start.

His point shot was tipped into the net for SKA’s first goal of the season.

He finished the season opener with a decent 12 minutes and 15 seconds of ice time.

But fast forward to game two and his ice time was cut to under ten minutes for no apparent explicable reason.

Then in his third regular season things were back on track. He netted his first goal of the season.

His goal ended up being the game winning goal. He also skated on the ice for over twelve and one half minutes with his coach’s approval.

It appeared at this point that he was well on his way to putting up some impressive offensive numbers that would only improve once he got some special teams time, especially on the power play.

In his fourth game he did not make it onto the scoresheet but he did reach a season high of nearly 13 minutes of ice time.

Then this happened. Podkolzin, unhappy about being knocked onto his keister, in the ensuing scrum landed a gloved right punch to the face of one of the players on the opposing team and drew the only minor penalty in the sequence.

While his ice time did not diminish right away, by the end of the game he was again well under 10 minutes of actual blades cutting through the ice.

It does seem harsh though that one undisciplined penalty would lead to a major cut in ice time. Some think it did and others think it might be a conspiracy to force him to sign a KHL extension and forego the blue-and-green sweater for at least one more season.

And indeed, for his next game Vasily Podkolizin was promoted from the fourth line to the third line to start the game.

But then SKA got off to a terrible start mainly due to the poor defensive play of his former fourth line linemates. They were down 3-0 before they knew what hit them. Suddenly, Podkolzin found himself back on the fourth line with his former linemates. Even worse, after starting the game on his club’s third line, he ended up forgotten at the end of the bench garnering just over 8 minutes of ice time when the game ending horn sounded.

Perhaps, Podkolzin’s change in line and time fortune was simply situational. Afterall, SKA did storm back, mostly without him on the ice, to tie their opponent 3-3 before eventually losing the game 4-3 in regulation time. Surely his ice time would be back on a normal track again in his next game.

On the other hand maybe not. Podkolzin was back in his usual fourth line right wing spot. His usual center was demoted to the ignominy of the thirteenth forward position. His usual left winger, after putting up a minus three goal differential in his last game, was switched to the right wing from left wing and promoted to the first line.

And then the unexpected happened. Podkolzin was pretty much stapled to the bench for most of the game. He finished his sitting time sentence with under 7 minutes of ice reprieve time, his lowest number of the season so far.

Many Canucks’ fans are tearing their hair out right now over Podkolzin’s ice time treatment by coach Valeri Bragin. Maybe this is some kind of indiscernible Russian coaching technique that the North American fan simply cannot understand due to ethnocentricity. I wrote about this topic last season when Podkolzin was being yo-yoed from league to league and team to team at that time.

Maybe this all ends with Podkolzin leading SKA to the 2020/21 Gagarin Cup championship? Or maybe this is a contract extension ploy by his current employers? Or perhaps it is just the Russia way of player development?

We may find out as soon as SKA’s next game on Sunday morning against their coming opponent Torpedo. What line will he play on? How much ice time will he get this time? But the answer to these questions may linger from game to game all season long.

I’ve kept a close eye on watching Podkolzin play during his 2020 preseason and through the first seven games of his regular season. His play has always passed the eye test for me. I can offer no valid hockey playing reason for his reduced ice time. I am not alone in this view.

It will be an intriguing story to follow as Canucks’ fans patiently await the arrival of their next golden ice child at Rogers Arena hopefully by no later than May 1st, 2021.