The Jackets are riding high right now. They have matched their best start in franchise history (2003-2004) going 3-1 in their first four games. Back in those days the Jackets were pretending as they dropped their next six games... Now-a-days it's all about contending as the Jackets look to make a repeat trip into the playoffs.
This post however isn't about terrific start for the team, but the slow start for an individual. That individual being rookie blue chip sniper Nikita Filatov. No individual should be bigger than the team and the most important thing are notches in the win column. Of course there is the rub. The Jackets find themselves in an interesting position really for the first time in their nine year history. How do you balance winning with grooming young blue chip talent? It's tricky.
We knew from last year's rookie crop of fellow blue chippers Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek that earning ice early in the season was going to be difficult for Filatov. This team no longer hands out ice time like candy on Halloween to high draft picks. Players have to earn it regardless of their draft standing.
On top of that this is the deepest Jackets roster to date. Still, even with that in mind, you look at Filatov's ice time through four games and regardless of the wins one has to ask themselves, what gives? Game One: 9:18 Game Two: 7:41 Game Three: 6:14 Game Four: 4:49 Compare that to the first four games from Brassard and Voracek last season: Brassard Game One: 12:23 Game Two: 15:39 Game Three: 16:46 Game Four: 11:36 Voracek Game One: 9:09 Game Two: 12:03 Game Three: 14:05 Game Four: 8:54
Voracek is probably the better comparable as he is closer to Filatov in age but even he saw his ice time increase before decreasing in his first four games. Filatov has seen his ice time dwindle to a minuscule 4:49 seconds. What's more interesting than that is when you take a look at the TOI in the eight games Filatov played last season: Game One: 9:10 Game Two: 8:38 Game Three: 4:51 Game Four: 2:54 Game Five: 8:53 Game Six: 9:59 Game Seven: 7:42 Game Eight: 12:53 When Filatov played last year he got more ice time than he did so far this season. Now how can that be when he's a year older with more development time under his belt? It's tricky.
Last year injuries played a big part in his ice time, especially when he was recalled in January. This year circumstance has played a big factor. The four games that have been played sans the San Jose game were tightly contested affairs. Filatov's playing time has been dictated by the sheer intensity of these games.
I also don't think it's a huge coincidence that Filatov saw the most ice during the Jackets home opener as Hitch had more control over who to line the young Russian up against. He also came off his strongest preseason games leading up to that game which gave the coach more confidence in him. Once they hit the road the games were close and Hitch road the veterans. Result: 3-1 Still though... 4:59? Hey, it's tricky!
Howson has stated that Steve Stamkos started off similar to Filatov last season. Let's take a look: StamkosGame One: 8:25 Game Two: 14:53 Game Three: 6:05 Game Four: 9:22 Indeed Stamkos didn't storm out of the NHL gates with guns'a blazin (in fact he went scoreless through his first seven games) but he certainly saw more time than Filatov thus far. Also keep in mind it took a coaching change before he saw his time ratchet up. To me Filatov's leash seems unfairly short at this point.
That was evident the moment Hitch benched him after a penalty in the 3rd period of opening night. Yes it was a bad penalty to take at a key point of the game but if a veteran commits that penalty he doesn't miss a shift. Filatov, on the other hand, didn't see the ice after his.
To that point I ask myself aren't rookies expected to make mistakes and shouldn't veterans be held accountable for the same ones? Shouldn't their leashes be shorter as they are the experienced players who should know better? Klesla has had his share of bad penalties and in fact leads the team in that category with five minors. Brassard's four minute minor could have cost the Jackets the game in Phoenix. Yet back on the ice they went. You guessed it.. it's tricky.
Hitch leans heavily on his veterans. Especially in situations where games are tight and mistakes have to be few. I guess it's kind of like eating out.. do you pick the brand new flashy restaurant that has the potential to blow your sucks off but could under-perform or do you go with what's familiar and minimize the unknown?
Win, lose or draw Filatov's situation is shaping up to be an interesting one to watch. This isn't just an average rookie here. He was voted the No. 1 prospect not in the NHL last season. He's a skill player... he's not a banger and shouldn't be judged as one. Think Paul Kariya when you think Nikita Filatov. Yes, he needs to be responsible defensively.. Yes, he needs to compete for the puck.. but he is also a rookie and there will be mistakes and there will be a learning curve.
At some point he's going to have to learn how to play in these tough games right? If not now then when? If not now then why is he here? If you aren't going to dress him only to bench him then that also means you're running the risk of overplaying someone else. There are already rumblings that Filatov may be scratched tomorrow against Calgary because they are a "heavy team".
At some point he's either good enough to play in the NHL or he's not. Enough with the excuses. Honestly, has he been that bad to warrant riding the pine this much? If so then I haven't seen it. I don't think he needs to be playing 12 mins a game but certainly more than five. ..at a minimum why isn't he out on he PP more often? He is 12th on the team in PP time averaging 44 seconds a game. This is an area he can be protected and he can contribute.
I would argue he has the best one time shot on the team right now—why not utilize it in these situations? I've watched him closely and I don't think he's been much worse defensively or competitively than say a guy like Huselius. True he doesn't have the experience that Juice brings but if the team can compete with him they can certainly make room for Filatov. It's only four games but from my cheap seats I'm not convinced they really know what to do with him or where he fits. Perhaps Howson and Hitch are finding this.....dare I say...... tricky?
My biggest issue in this whole thing is his confidence and how it is fairing early on. No way to know that answer unless your in Filatov's head. After considering all of this I find myself falling back on this point. Hitch has shown he knows what he's doing with these young players. I remember questioning why he wasn't playing Brassard and Voracek much early last season and both went on to have very successful rookie years.
Brassard scored 25 points in 31 games before going down with a season ending shoulder injury and Voracek went on to score one less point (38) than Rick Nash did in his rookie season. So perhaps we just need to sit back and let the experts who get paid a lot of money sort this thing out. Filatov is playing the good solider for now. I give it about 20 games and if his ice time hasn't increased to at/near double digits things could get.....all together now...tricky. So tricky in fact that words like KHL and trade might start popping up in conversations.
Thanks for the assist Run DMC (and whoever that kid is in this clip). -LTL