Okay, it’s had some time to sink in, I’ve read all the fevered comments on Puck-Rakers and elsewhere. I guess I haven’t moved far off my position from this morning — this is not a good situation for the Blue Jackets, but I still think it’s not the end of the world. Mostly because I do believe that at some point between now and 2011, Filatov is going to want to try his luck at the NHL again, and one way or another, he will have to go through the Columbus organization to do it. Clearly, the longer he stays in Russia, the more his trade value is diminished, so it’s in the best interest of the Jackets that he either returns to play for Columbus or gets traded ASAP, probably by the beginning of next season either way. But I’m not ready to jump on the “first round pick just walked away for nothing” train just yet. I know people point to Svitov, who never came back from Russia, but I don’t see the comparison as all that valid. Svitov was older, had been in North America longer, and could probably recognize that NHL stardom was never going to be his (not to mention he’d had some family problems back home while he was over here that probably made him see being closer to home as a good thing). Filatov is just 19, and based on what we’ve seen of him and heard from him in the past couple of years, I just suspect a career in the KHL is not his long term goal.
I’d also like to see some people back off Filatov a bit, and chill with the anti-Russian stuff. Right now, this is an issue mostly with Russian players because they’re most likely to see the KHL as a good alternative to the NHL. Yes, some North Americans and other Europeans go there. But if you read Dave King’s book about coaching in the RSL (and you should, as it’s a very good book), it’s clear that there’s a lot that North Americans still find weird and isolating and unacceptable vis-a-vis the living standards in Russia. So there probably never will be a big wave of North American NHL players fleeing to the KHL. But past history shows that when there are viable North American sources of leverage, North American players use them. That’s how the WHA managed to keep going for seven years. And in the mid-90s, when the IHL tried for the big time, disgruntled NHLers (Curtis Joseph, for example), played in that league in order to try and force the hands of their NHL organization. Or more recently, until they changed the rules in the last CBA, a number of NCAA prospects jumped to major junior specifically because by doing so they could become NHL free agents. Players use the leverage that is available to them when they’re unhappy with their circumstances, and I don’t think that’s some uniquely Russian trait.
Is Filatov arrogant? Yeah, probably. I don’t know him, but it would hardly be earth-shattering news that a prized young athlete is arrogant about his abilities. It’s both an occupational hazard of and a requirement for the job. If I can digress briefly into my own experiences playing hockey, any time I found the puck on my stick, my reaction was the same — panic, and figure out how to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Because I fundamentally lacked the confidence in my ability to handle the puck well enough to carry it any distance without turning it over. And I came to respect those players who did have that confidence. And that’s at pretty low levels of hockey. A finesse player like Filatov, to be able to play the style he does well enough to become a high draft pick of an NHL team — it takes a shitload of confidence in his ability. Obviously, some pro players lose that confidence as they move up the ladder and aren’t as effective against better players. But I think they all have to have it to get to the professional level in the first place. And when you have a lot of confidence, yeah, it can turn into arrogance. Especially when you’re young and feeling invincible. So I’m not ready to throw Filatov under the bus as an irredeemable jerk just yet. I still hope that as he matures he will find the balance between the confidence he needs to do his job and the humility he needs to be a team player.
Is Hitchcock biased against young skilled players and has he never given Filatov a fair chance? I think there’s some truth here — there’s a definite “Hitch type” player, and Filatov doesn’t particularly fit that mold right now. But I don’t think it’s necessarily true that young skilled players can’t get a fair chance from Hitchcock. Brassard and Voracek haven’t always been on a long leash, but they’ve both gotten fairly significant levels of responsibility from the coach. As has Kris Russell. Rick Nash was far from a paradigmatic Hitch type player when Hitchcock took over, but he’s grown a great deal into a more rounded player under Hitchcock’s coaching. I don’t agree with everything Hitchcock does as a coach — for the life of me, I’ve never figured out his infatuation with Andrew Murray — but the team has moved forward since he’s been in Columbus. There may be a time when it’s obvious he’s not the right coach for the job anymore, but I don’t think we can make that call on the basis of one unhappy 19-year-old.
For better or for worse, it does seem like the team has been built since Howson took over largely around Hitchcock. Management clearly believed enough in him to take that into account while trading and signing players. It is, then, a matter of some concern when the Dispatch suggests that Filatov has become a sticking point between Hitchcock and Howson. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to always agree on everything, if there is in fact a rift between the coach and the GM, that’s something I’m worried about. Because that can wreck a team. We saw enough of it in the MacLean years.
And now, I’m done thinking about Filatov for the night. What’s done is done.