Thursday, December 9, 2010

Who stays? Who Goes? Part II: The Filatov Conundrum

This graphic is almost quaint seems that the last thing
 CBJ fans have to worry about is his desire to be a part of the team.
In response to a suggestion by DBJ blog reader OSUJumpMan from yesterday's post, I'm going to take a moment before all hell breaks loose in St. Louis tonight to examine perhaps the leading candidate for Columbus Blue Jackets Mercurial Player of the Year, Nikita Filatov.

Let's retrace our steps: The Filatov Odyssey started when he was drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft.  At the time, the selection of "another Russian" (following the departure of Nik Zherdev) seemed curious to those who detected that then-coach Ken Hitchcock did not care for the loose, free-wheeling style that Russian skaters brought to the National Hockey League.  But Filatov was determined; he readily submitted himself to the CBJ's then-AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, for the 2008-09 season and went 16G-16A-32PTS over 39 games.  More tantalizingly, he also played with the Blue Jackets for 8 games and went 4G-0A-4PTS, with a hat trick against an unsuspecting Minnesota Wild team on January 10, 2009:

If that display was not a sign that the Blue Jackets might have something special on their hands, I don't know what could be.
Of course, such fancy, crowd-pleasing play by the youngster was anathema to Hitchcock's mode of burly, defense-first play by grizzled veterans - and Hitch did what he could to bend Filatov to his will.  As CBJ fans know, that didn't end well.

The escape back to CSKA Moscow may have been a needed mental health
reprieve for Filatov, but has it caused deeper harm to his professional
hockey aspirations? (Flickr photo by enot_female)
Filatov was in Russia by Thanksgiving, playing on a one-season loan for the KHL's CSKA Moscow (the legendary Red Army team), where he accumulated 9G-13A-22PTS in 26 games.  He also had a now-legendary flameout with the coach of the Russian Junior National Team at the Junior World Championships and lost his captaincy in the process.  Filatov also started practicing for the Russian (senior) National Team for the World Championships but got bumped by the likes of Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk when their NHL teams crumbled in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  It's safe to say that the voyage back into the arms of Mother Russia...well, that didn't end well, either.

What were the Jackets to do?  They have a player who clearly has some talent and expressed quite readily that he wanted to come back to the NHL.  And the stars aligned on the Columbus end.  Hitch is gone, replaced by the apparently youth-friendly AHL coach, Scott Arniel.  Clutch-and-grab is a thing of the past, dump-and-chase is now a last resort and puck possession is now the way to go for the Blue Jackets.  It seemed like this was a team that was made for Filatov.  But was he really serious about returning to Columbus?  A summertime visit by the CBJ's Tyler Wright to Moscow to visit and train with Filatov apparently removed all doubts, feelings cemented by the early arrival of Filatov to Columbus for late summer conditioning with the team.

The preseason went very well for Filatov, especially considering the challenges he had in regaining the trust of those in the locker room.  In five preseason games, he accumulated 4G-0A-4PTS (on 16 shots, no less - a 25% scoring percentage!) with a plus/minus of +1.  But then the regular hit, and look at the stats:

Nikita Filatov has a place on the CBJ roster right now, but does he have
a place in the lineup? (Flickr photo by bridgetds)
By my calculations (and backed up by HockeyDB), that makes a whopping 0G-7A-7PTS in 22 games played.  In addition, he's averaging just under 12:14 TOI for the games in which he's played.  But here's the problem: Filatov is not a grinder, nor a fighter.  He's a shooter - more specifically, a sniper.  (Make a note that the CBJ really don't have any other snipers on the roster, complicating things incredibly...)  And when a sniper has no goals in 22 games, that's not good.  Snipers and shooters go on the first two forward lines.  You can't really put a sniper on a checking line or an energy line for any purpose other than punishment.  But when you have Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Jake Voracek, Derick Brassard and Kristian Huselius all but entrenched on the top two lines, that's 5 out of 6 possible spots.  Toss in R.J. Umberger, the CBJ's selfless utility player who really should be on the top two lines, with Kyle Wilson, who's impressed Scott Arniel enough to get a top-line placement already this season (more than Filatov has done, I believe), and you've got a squeeze play for that sixth spot.

Unlike prior seasons, you can't say that Filatov hasn't been given his chances to shine.  Arniel has been vocal about being fair to Filatov yet not putting Filatov's interests above the team.  And being the (now) good soldier, Filatov has agreed that his performance has warranted his time in the press box.  But how long does this go on before it becomes counter-productive?  And then throw in the fact that Scott Howson is apparently firming up the roster for the balance of the season, and the injured Kristian Huselius (who, while not the most consistent player in the world, still contributes a consistent 20-ish goals and 50-60 points per season) is on the verge of returning from the injured reserve list.  Where does a young, under-performing sniper fit in?

I see four possible scenarios:

  1. Filatov gets his act together, starts scoring and contributes in both offensive and defensive situations beyond that which we have seen thus far.  This is the ideal circumstance, a win-win for all parties.  
  2. Howson, Arniel (and Filatov?) agree to send Filatov down to Springfield to find his mojo on the North American ice.  Personally, I think that this is the ideal long-term solution once Huselius, another shooter, returns to the lineup from injury...but the now obvious flight risk to Russia makes such a move a significant point of concern.  The only way I can see this scenario working is if Filatov himself asks for the plane ticket.  Otherwise, there will always be that lingering fear that Filatov will instead take the first flight back to Moscow.
  3. Filatov continues to stumble around in Columbus, doesn't really perform well and bounces between lines (and the press box), becoming a roster slot placeholder whom Howson is scared to demote to Springfield for fear of the aforementioned flight risk.
  4. Howson trades Filatov.  His value clearly is not worth the number six overall pick of the 2008 draft any longer, but I could see a desperate team (Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary come to mind) trying to do something to grab him in the hopes that he could come alive in their town.  I'm not thrilled at this possibility, seeing as Filatov is only 20 and has a potentially bright future ahead of him.  At the same time, I can't blame Howson if he takes the "Look, we tried..." approach and gets rid of what now is at least a minor personnel headache.  
I know what I'd like to see happen and know what I'd like to see Filatov and the Blue Jackets avoid.  And, again, perhaps there's another solution altogether.  I suppose that the question is, can Filatov emerge stronger from his recent scratches and rise above the looming roster squeeze?  And what do the Columbus Blue Jackets do if he does not?


  1. I want to see this kid succeed so bad, and I feel like he does too. I can't remember what game it was but a while back he made a nice pass to someone who scored and he celebrated like he had put it in the net. I've never seen someone celebrate an assist but it was obvious he wants to break out of this slump. I think the trip to Springfield would indeed help but I don't know how he feels about that. I guess time will tell.

  2. Thanks for the shoutout! After the top 3 that '08 draft has been a bit of a crapshoot for teams, Filatov included. I have to think he's pressing pretty hard at this point because every stage of his career up to this point he's essentially been a point-per-game guy. 22 games with only 7 points puts him pretty far behind that pace. A pretty high number of his points this year have come on the PP, so maybe that's the solution to his AND the team's problem. I suppose we'll be finding out what the course will be as soon as Juice is fully recovered and ready to play.

  3. I think they're playing not to lose rather then to win. They've shown signs of swagger, real confidence early this season and last. But they're brittle, I think a part of their history, and frustrate quickly.

    Glad I'm not Arniel right now.



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