Enough With The Filatov Frenzy!
There are certain issues over which a normally knowledgeable Columbus hockey fan base loses all perspective and common sense. Usually, these are issues which involve the display of some modicum of patience, a trait totally lacking in the realm of OSU football fandom, and exceedingly rare on the hockey side of the house. Nikita Filatov is the lastest poor soul to be victimized by this tendency. Note to the fan base: Give It A Rest!!
For the uninitiated, who may have just returned from an extended stay on the International Space Station or perhaps awakened from a prolonged coma, Filatov was the Jackets first round pick in the 2008 entry draft. He wowed the locals with 4 goals in 8 games last season, including a home hat trick, before being returned to Syracuse, where he had a solid season. He was recalled as an observer for the stretch run and playoffs, just to experience the escalated intensity level of NHL Playoff hockey.
Big things are expected from the young Filatov, who has yet to see his 20th birthday. He is an enormous offensive talent, both as a pure shooter and passer, but has not previously been called upon to devote a lot of attention to the defensive zone. In the Hitchcock system, that just won’t do. So, while he notched a beautiful one-timer goal on the road in Vancouver, his minutes shrank in Phoenix, and he was a healthy scratch in a home game against Calgary. This has resulted in a rampage of online speculation ranging from assertions that Hitchcock doesn’t like Filatov, to his being sent back to the AHL, to his imminent defection to the KHL (more on this later). Columbus likes nothing better than a good conspiracy, so this story had all of the required elements. The problem is – there is no story!
First, to give the fans their due, they have been somewhat poisoned by the Nikolai Zherdev experience. Zherdev, the first round draft pick in 2003, was the NHL’s version of Manny Ramirez – a world class talent, prone to extended mental vacations, and utterly resistant to coaching. He would flash magnificent displays of ability, only to fade into obscurity, commit breathtaking blunders and deflect any responsibility for his poor play to others. He was sullen, isolationist and made little effort to learn English or become part of the community. Upon arriving in Columbus, GM Scott Howson and Coach Hitchcock quickly assessed the prospects for turning Zherdev around, and shipped him off to the New York Rangers, who learned what Columbus had known all along. New York declined to honor the arbitration award for $3.5 million Zherdev received, and after a brief flirtation with Atlanta, “Z” is now plying his trade in the KHL.
Whatever the temptations might be to compare Filatov with Zherdev, such comparisons are grossly unfair to Filatov. By all accounts, he is an affable, hard working kid and is well-liked in the locker room. Right now, he is learning how to ply his talents within a specific system, and that takes time. His confidence in the offensive zone and the ability to create space are currently tempered by the need to think about his responsibilities. In due course, these will become second nature, and his instincts will again take hold.
This adjustment process should be familiar to Columbus fans. When Hitchcock came on board, there was another offensive star who needed to work on his defensive end coverage and become integrated into Hitchcock’s system, a process that took the better part of a year. Big guy . . .wears #61 . . .yeah, Rick Nash. Like the Nash of old, Filatov likes to hang out in open areas near the top of his defensive zone, ready for a breakout. Hitchock wants his forwards fully engaged – digging pucks off the boards and being instrumental in clearing the zone. He is learning, and had about a ten minute center ice chat with Hitchcock on just that subject this week in practice.
The obsessive micro-focus on Filatov was exacerbated by an interview he gave in Russia, to a Russian journalist, which was translated and reprinted on several internet sites. He acknowledged having had offers from the KHL, but said that his dream was to play in the NHL, just like his hero, Ilya Kovalchuk. While remarking that he would be more inclined to listen to the KHL if things didn’t work out in the NHL, he made it clear that he was prepared to work hard to make his dream come true. This was interpreted as a threat by some of the more conspiracy-inclined members of the fan circles, heightening the paranoia level.
Keep in mind that it was this same group of fans that would scream every time Rick Nash gave an interview in Toronto, praising the city and the Leafs’ franchise, convinced that these were evil omens of his imminent defection. Of course, Nash signed a long term extension within about 72 hours of being eligible to do so, shooting down that theory. The point is that Filatov has a goal to succeed in the NHL, and is willing to work hard to do it. He doesn’t want to aggravate the Russian media, in the same way that Nash was diplomatic in Canada. Filatov has Olympic aspirations at some point, so does not want to be viewed as burning any bridges in his homeland. He also knows that he has a contractual commitment to the Blue Jackets, and has every intention of honoring it.
Howson and Hitccock have an opportunity with Filatov that they did not have with Zherdev – namely the chance to bring him along slowly and properly. Hitchcock is notoriously careful with rookies in what he perceives to be “heavy” games or close situations, and some of the low minute totals this season are attributable to those situations. More importantly, the goals that the club has for Filatov, and that he has for himself, are not goals that will be realized in 5 games, or 10, or 20. It will be a gradual process, where minutes and production move in tandem.
Filatov is going to score a lot of goals, and be a contributor for a long time to come. He is 19, and precisely 5 games into his first season as a full time member of the club. It is time for everybody to take a deep breath and let Filatov and Hitchcock do their work. Patience has it’s rewards.