First a bit of groundwork. The Russian Super League, which was probably the best league outside of the NHL, is going away. It's re-forming as the Continental League, with some changes and big plans. It will try to compete with the NHL, with things like drafts and salary caps. Here's an article by Larry Brooks on the potential tug of war with the NHL for players, and some general background info.
But initially at least, the league will amount to a refurbished, refinanced and slightly expanded Russian Super League, with the same 20 teams, plus one elevated from a lower tier and one each from the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Latvia.
I spoke to Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr about Russian players last weekend. He said that because of the new formation of this Continental League, all previous Super League contracts are null and void. All players have to sign new contracts for the new league. This means that there will be a new wave of 18-year-olds coming to the CHL, NHL and even AHL to play this fall. Players like Nikita Filatov, a top 2008-eligible. Marr mentioned him as an example of this phenomenon, and Filatov has told multiple outlets that he intends to play in the CHL next year. This should help keep him in the top five in the upcoming draft, since playing in the CHL is a good indication the player will be signable.
I asked Marr how this all ties in with Ilya Nikulin (former second round pick) signing with the Thrashers -- would the lack of a contract providing an opening for the 26-year-old to finally come over? As expected, he was non-plussed by reports out of Russia that there could be increased desire on his part. Marr said the Russian press is always after both Nikulin and (2006 pick) Andrei Zubarev. Every year we hear things about Nikulin coming over, but bottom line if he really wanted to be here, he'd be here.
The next night I chatted with Thrashers Assistant GM Larry Simmons, who handles the organization's contracts, and he said much the same as Marr. Simmons said that he's talked to Ilya Nikulin's agent recently, and the agent said that Nikulin's contract was "assumed" by the new Continental League. I asked how that could be that only his contract was assumed when they were all supposed to be wiped out, and Simmons agreed that it's a good question. There's no way to verify this type of stuff, you have to just take their word for it. At the end of the day, to sign a player to an NHL contract, the player's side must show evidence to the NHL that they can get out of their Russian contract (via a clause or whatever). Otherwise the league won't validate the contract.
As far as this contracts question goes, here's the intrigue (there's always intrigue when it comes to Russia). One of our writers at Hockey's Future talked to a couple of Russian agents at the Combine, and they said the contracts were not wiped out. New contracts were presented to the players to sign, but everyone was told that the old ones would be enforced in court if new ones were not signed. Contracts are with the same team, just new league. If the players just refuse to sign and just try to leave, that's a huge problem -- and a lot of people recognize this. It sounds to me like the agents are saying the old contracts will be enforced in order to prevent clients from fleeing. But logically, if the old ones would be enforced, then there would be no need to sign new contracts in the first place would there? It's more likely that they are unenforceable and the agents are saying this for their own benefit (surprise!).
In light of all this, instead of an exodus to Russia for more tax-free money, we could be seeing more players leaving Russia for North America -- those who were in contracts they no longer want to be in.
(Note: NHL teams are retaining the rights to Russian players, and now all Europeans indefinitely because the league has classified them as "defected" players, a stipulation in the CBA. If and when the countries sign a new IIHF agreement, the regular rules for rights will apply.)
As far as Nikulin in particular goes, Simmons said he is still subject to the entry-level system (Europeans are subject through age 27). But the rub is that he would become an unrestricted free agent under the CBA at age 27, so if they signed him this summer, per the CBA they can only sign him for one year at an entry-level price (less than he reportedly makes in Russia), and then he'd be an UFA. It's hard to make this make sense with signing bonus, etc. Last year the issue with him coming over was money. For years we've been hearing things, but Larry ended saying the same thing as Marr -- the same thing everyone says -- they'll believe it when they see it.