European prospects could have themselves a super-sized 2020-21 season

Heading back overseas may be a great option for young players next season, as European leagues are more likely to start in the fall. And NHL teams are happy to have their brightest prospects potentially still available in the spring.
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Daniel St Louis/Moncton Wildcats

Daniel St Louis/Moncton Wildcats

Alexander Khovanov, one of the Minnesota Wild's top prospects, is heading back to Russia for the 2020-21 campaign. While this in itself isn't major news, it does bring into focus what could be a trend in the coming months of European players heading back over the Atlantic due to the scheduling effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As per Michael Russo from The Athletic, Khovanov will spend next year with Ak Bars Kazan, one of the best franchises in the KHL. The plan is for Khovanov to return to North America eventually next season and given the staggered schedules between various leagues for 2020-21, Khovanov could see a ton of action.

While the NHL's 2020-21 campaign likely won't begin until December or January, the KHL is already gathering for training camp and the expectation is that regular season games will begin on Sept. 2. So even if Khovanov's Ak Bars squad goes to the KHL championship, he'd be free to come back to North America in late April. Whether he joins the AHL's Iowa Wild or Minnesota proper remains to be seen, obviously, but there would be plenty of games for him to play here.

It will be interesting to see just how many young players follow Khovanov back overseas in the coming months.

I spoke with a prominent player agent today who expects we'll see a number of prospects make the move. The easiest scenarios will involved unsigned European draft picks. In fact, some teams will encourage prospects to sign over there - the kids get ice time and experience at a time when nothing is happening in North America and the NHL team signs them as soon as things are cleared up here.

After all, we think major junior is going to return at relatively the same time as usual this fall, but the CHL itself is already putting together contingency plans if Oct. 1 needs to become Nov. 1. There's also the AHL, which like major junior is even more gate-driven than the NHL. You need fans in the stands to pay for the product and without the green light from public health officials, the leagues are stuck.

Signed prospects could be a bit more tricky, though Khovanov has already inked his entry-level deal with the Wild, so clearly those situations will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The sticking point on these players will be recall rights, according to the agent. We have to remember that European clubs, quite rightly, do not see themselves as feeder teams for the NHL. If a player is going to suit up for Frolunda or HIFK, those teams would have to know whether or not to expect that youngster to be yanked back by the NHL franchise before the European season has concluded. Needless to say, I'm gonna assume most European teams would prefer that if the player was coming over, it would be for the long-haul.

These are all negotiations to be had, but the implications are important. Playing in North America for the first time can be an adjustment both on and off the ice for young Europeans, which is why a year or two in major junior is often encouraged by NHL franchises. Khovanov spent the past three seasons in the QMJHL with Moncton, so he knows the lay of the land here.

And despite the uncertainty around the major junior schedule right now, many of the top picks in the CHL Import Draft have already signed with their CHL teams, including No. 1 selection Matvey Petrov, who will play for the OHL's North Bay Battalion, and one of Khovanov's replacements in Moncton, Max Barbashev - whose older brother Ivan also played for the Wildcats and just won the Stanley Cup with St. Louis.

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