The Columbus Blue Jackets announced yesterday that their first round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Nikita Filatov, will spend the remainder of the season with CSKA Moscow of the KHL. It’s an interesting move; Filatov’s a prized prospect who hasn’t played much at the NHL level this past season (just 13 games) after playing 8 games with the club last season. It’s prompted the usual rumours (problems with the coach, problems with the organization, etc.), and those seemed to be confirmed when Filatov’s Russian agent called his client “unhappy” and described his relationship with Ken Hitchcock as a “conflict of interest.”

Filatov though downplayed those rumours in an interview with Puck Daddy’s Dmitry Chesnokov, where he said that he liked both the organization and the city and described the people in the Blue Jackets’ organization as “great guys.” Reading the interview, there’s no doubt that Filatov would vastly prefer to play in the KHL than the AHL, and given both his age and his use this season (use which is completely defensible, given that Hitchcock wants his team to make the playoffs) it didn’t make sense to keep him in the NHL. Scott Howson spun it as an opportunity for player development in a statement yesterday:

“Nikita is a top prospect in our organization and we believe it is in the best interest of his development to play more and in all situations in the KHL. We have agreed to his request to be assigned to CSKA and this should afford him the opportunity to continue to work and develop his game in his hometown of Moscow.”

Despite that, I don’t think there’s much doubt the Blue Jackets would prefer to have Filatov in the AHL rather than the KHL. After all, when it comes to preparing players for the NHL, no league in the world serves as well as the American Hockey League; the play is both comparable to top European leagues in terms of skill and comparable to the NHL in terms of physicality. There’s a fine line to be walked, though: as with all Russian prospects, the threat of a permanent defection to the KHL is omnipresent. Columbus is probably doing the right thing by giving Filatov the option of playing where he’s most comfortable, and both Howson and Filatov are saying that Filatov’s future is in the NHL. While I don’t have any concrete reason to doubt that, I couldn’t help noticing one thing. First, from The Columbus Dispatch‘s excellent Puck-Rakers blog:

CSKA is expected to sign Filatov to a three-year deal which means he cannot play for another KHL club during that time. It’s believed Filatov will not make $1 million this season, a source said, despite rumours of him earning $2 million to $3 million.

(italics mine)

Second, from the Chesnokov interview:

Your loan is valid for just one year?

The loan agreement is for half a year. That means it’s until the end of the season. And then we’ll see.

Did you consider playing 2-3 years in Russia and then come back after having a lot of experience playing under your belt?

I haven’t thought about what’s going to happen after this season at all yet. I don’t like to guess.

It’s probably just a case of CSKA hedging their bets with a long-term deal, and of Filatov’s agent ensuring his client has a Russian option if things don’t work out next fall in training camp. Still, it has to be a little disconcerting for Howson and company to know that their star prospect has a three-year deal in a league with the KHL’s reputation for obstinance, and it’s a situation that will bear some watching.