Alarming, if not completely unanticipated, news overnight in the Dispatch: Nikita Filatov may be leaving the team for the KHL as early as this week. The Filatov issue has been brewing all season (and part of last as well), even drawing national attention. And we’ve known at least since the summer that if Filatov wasn’t getting ice time in Columbus, he had the KHL as a backup plan.
This is one of those situations where I can see all sides, and I’m not entirely sure which one is correct. Filatov is absolutely a talented offensive player. We’ve seen enough of him to know that. But he’s equally got some deficits on the defensive and physical sides of the game that he needs to figure out before he gets top line minutes in the NHL, especially on a Ken Hitchcock-coached team.
It’s clear that being a healthy scratch most nights, and playing limited fourth-line minutes alongside such offensive luminaries as Jared Boll and Mike Blunden is not the optimal use of a talent like Filatov’s. But this year’s Jackets team isn’t struggling to score goals, and with some ups and downs, is generally playing pretty well. So how do you justify demoting a player from one of the top lines to make room for Filatov? I know some would have said Huselius in the past few weeks, but he’s been better of late. Voracek is having a breakout season. Brassard has struggled a bit but still has done more than Filatov. With the injuries right now, maybe Filatov could slot into the third line more easily, but Torres and Pahlsson will be healthy at some point, and maybe even Modin. Filatov just hasn’t shown in the chances he’s had that he should be displacing an experienced NHL forward from one of the top lines.
In the past, when the team could hardly buy a goal, the team could live with the growing pains of a Nash or Zherdev or Brule in the hopes that they would pitch in some offense. But that didn’t ultimately lead to much success, and two of those three players are no longer with the team, so do we want to emulate that now?
It does pain me a little bit to say that, as I’ve long felt that the changes in the game since the early 1990s that stress defensively responsibility, often to the detriment of offensive flair and skill, make hockey less fun to watch. So there’s a part of me that wants to say to hell with defense! Let Filatov be Filatov and let the blueline sort out the consequences. But then there’s the part of me that really wants this team to make the playoffs this year, and even if that takes 80 games like last night’s tight-checking affair, so be it.
The obvious solution would seem to be for Filatov to go to Syracuse, play top line minutes, score a lot of points, and work on his defense and physical play. Jason Spezza was even more highly touted than Filatov when he was drafted by the Senators; he went back to junior and then into the AHL, largely because of weaknesses in his defensive play. And he’s gone on to a pretty successful NHL career. Why not the same path for Filatov?
But of course the KHL is the rub. And it’s just a fact we have to live with in the contemporary NHL. Players have options. And particularly in the case of Russian players, it’s an attractive option to be able to live closer to family and friends, speak their own language, not deal with culture shock, and still be well compensated to play a reasonably high level of hockey. It’s not surprising they would opt for that when the AHL is the other option and they don’t feel like they’ll be getting to the NHL soon. Some fans have called for the Jackets to never draft another Russian because of this, but that is an unduly harsh position. Would we really pass up the talent of an Ovechkin or a Malkin because there’s some chance they might bolt for the KHL? Of course not. And it’s not even just Russian players who are willing to go there, in any event — look at Jiri Hudler leaving Detroit in the off-season.
So is the solution then to just play Filatov in the NHL as much as he wants, on the line he wants, lest he decide he wants out? Again, there’s a certain attraction to just letting him sink or swim, and on a 14th place team, maybe. But on a team that’s most likely going to be dueling it out for those 6-8 positions…it’s hard to go against Hitchcock on this one.
In the end, it might not be the worst thing for Filatov to go back to the KHL for a spell, if the AHL is just not an option he is willing to accept. Columbus still owns his rights for several years, so when he wants another kick at the NHL can (and I predict he will; these guys are competitive and want to test themselves against the best players), it will have to be with the Blue Jackets, or he will have to be traded. But the Jackets will still control his NHL future. So maybe let him go back, do some maturing, work on his play, and then see where we are next fall. Obviously, he wouldn’t be developing in the Columbus system and under the watchful eye of the coaches and management, but it’s not necessarily the end of the world.
The other option is a trade, and I’m warming up to that. I hate to let young players go, especially when they have the sort of talent Filatov does. He is the sort of player I could see looking back in ten years and saying, “Can you believe we drafted him and let him go?” But if he’s just not going to fit in the system in Columbus, and it’s going to be a continual distraction, and at some point his value gets diminished by the drama, maybe you trade him now, while his potential is still seen as very high. Columbus still lacks a legitimate #1 defenseman. If Filatov could be moved for a player who could fit that role, I would strongly consider it.
There’s no real simple way out of this mess. Every option has its down sides for the team, for Filatov, for the fans. I just hope it gets dealt with relatively quickly, and doesn’t become a distraction that drags the whole season into a morass. That would be the worst possible outcome.