Thanks to Cannon reader notthatnoise, we now know the Dispatch is reporting that Tyler Wright will be heading to Russia to spend time with Nikita Filatov at the end of this next week (and therefore prior to the NHL draft), and not after the draft and prospect camp (possibly as late as mid-July) as previously reported. That's a very interesting shift, and I suspect it may have been spurred by discussions between Howson and Arniel before the new head coach left for Manitoba to finalize his move to Columbus at the beginning of next week.
The timing means that they want to know just what's going on in Nikki's head before the draft, with it's customary trade-friendly environment, and to make sure they have a set course before free agency to boot. That means that plans could very well be starting to spool up around the young Russian and his future with the team.
After the jump, take a look at the scenarios I see coming from this change in schedule, and what they mean for Filatov's future.
If this whole situation sounds vaguely familiar to Blue Jacket fans, think of the meeting Howson held shortly after taking the GM's job with Nikolai Zherdev during the 2008 offseason. Howson needed to get a handle on where his enigmatic Russian winger was so he could decide if he wanted to keep him or move him.
That meeting lead to Zherdev coming back to the team ready to contribute and working hard. It wouldn't surprise me if Howson is hoping the same tactics can work again. I suspect we're seeing Wright make this trip rather than Howson so the GM can focus on the upcoming entry draft, and because Wright probably has more rapport with Filatov, given the time he's spent working with Nikita in Syracuse.
1. Everything's Fine!
The best case scenario as far as Filatov's fans within the organization and fanbase are concerned. Wright flies to Russia, works out with Filatov, sees the trainers he's working with, inspects the facilities, perhaps goes over to Mama Filatov's house for her world famous Pelmini, and confirms that Nikki is energized by the hiring of Scott Arniel and looking forward to coming to Columbus for training camp. Perhaps, if things go really well, he even agrees to come back earlier than planned to attend Prospect Camp or pre-season workouts before camp. Wright flies home able to tell the organization that one of their best prospects is still in the fold and ready to tear up the NHL. Everyone wins!
Probably the more realistic scenario - Wright and Filatov have some good conversations, and Filatov commits to returning to Columbus for training camp, but doesn't make any promises about anything else, and perhaps makes some quiet requests for more playing time - with the threat of returning to the KHL or demanding a trade if he doesn't get what he wants under Arniel. It's not the worst case scenario (we'll get to that), but certainly it's easy to see where both sides would come away with a lot of concerns up in the air until September.
3. "That's great, but..."
Despite the hiring of Arniel, Filatov is left cold by the Columbus organization - and while he wants to return to the NHL, he doesn't wish to come back to Ohio. Wright would probably take this in stride (after last season, it has to be a concern), and get a good idea of where Filatov would willingly return for if his rights were traded. This is not the worst position to be in, because it would give both parties a clear direction and exit strategy.
4. My new contract, let me show you it!
This would be that worst case scenario I mentioned - not only would Filatov not wish to return to Columbus, but possibly not to return to the NHL, either, and signed a new contract with CSKA or another KHL team. Not only would Columbus be out a valuable player, but the ability to deal his rights would be significantly impacted - even without a transfer agreement, it's unlikely a KHL team would let him go without a major cash bounty, and the IIHF might also get involved in the situation. However, this is probably the least likely of the four - in every interview Filatov has given to both North American and Russian media, even when he is rather cool about the Columbus organization, he has always praised the talent level of the NHL and spoken of his desire to play again in North America.
So, with that established, if we eliminate the worst case scenario, what is likely to happen?
- Filatov Returns - If the organization has good commitment that Filatov is returning to Columbus and invested in making the best effort he can to play for the Blue Jackets at the NHL level, expect to see off season moves that concentrate on free agent acquisitions or trades that shake up the blue line. Perhaps a move might be made around the draft to involve shuffling picks or players, but I wouldn't expect a blockbuster move.
- Filatov Wants A Trade - If Filatov wants to play in the NHL, but won't commit to returning to the Blue Jackets, expect him to be moved. I imagine that Howson will do his best to facilitate any requests Filatov makes for a destination, simply because any GM who wants to deal for the young Russian will want to do everything he can to make sure he returns, particularly if he can turn it into a deal for a top six forward or top four d-man. (Braydon Coburn? Joe Pavelski?), However, if there's a better deal out there that doesn't match Filatov's ideal destinations, Howson will take the best deal to help the team, even if it means Nikki might find himself flying to Alberta or Texas instead of Los Angeles or New York. Edit: Just to answer some concerns I've been sent privately: No, I don't think Filatov by himself is enough to land a top six forward or top four defenseman. But I do believe that if Howson needs to move him, he can be packaged into something that will help the team.
- Filatov Isn't Really Sure - If there's no real certainty on how committed Filatov will be to the Blue Jackets, expect Howson to quietly make other GMs aware that the winger's rights are available, and if he sees a deal he likes, jump on it. If nothing comes of it, we simply wait for September and see what happens. If he flourishes under Arniel's tutelage, so much the better. If he continues to clash with the coach or cause division in the locker room, expect the shopping attempts to get more aggressive before too awfully long. I doubt the team has any desire to see Filatov become a a point of controversy again.
Make no mistake - Nikita Filatov has an incredible level of talent, and if he's committed to playing in the NHL for the Blue Jackets, he's a huge asset, and one that I doubt the team will give up lightly. But at the same time, he is an asset, and if the value in trading him exceeds the value of keeping him, I don't see the team waiting to move him. For Filatov, he's got a vested interest in the process as well - if he returns to the NHL this season, in Columbus or elsewhere, it's his second shot at an NHL career. If he doesn't work to make the best possible impression once he arrives in North America, I doubt anyone would seriously consider giving him a third.