The Nikkita Filatov Conundrum

Ed CmarCorrespondent INovember 11, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 25:  Nikita Filatov #28 of the Columbus Blue Jackets rushes against the Los Angeles Kings during the game at the Staples Center on October 25, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Perhaps the most perplexing development with the Columbus Blue Jackets this season is the lack of playing time given to forward Nikita Filatov.

Since the season began, Filatov has seen his Time On Ice (TOI) go from a small amount, to virtually non-existent, to a series of healthy scratches—this, predicated by quite an intense discussion with Head Coach Ken Hitchcock during a practice preceding the series of healthy scratches—to Filatov starting to play, even fewer minutes, to more healthy scratches, to playing a few more minutes—only due to a rash of injuries to the CBJ's forward crop—to more diminished minutes, last night, with the same diminished forward corps. Whew! Recounting that was exhausting...

Let's backtrack a bit to what predicated the first series of healthy scratches, then to the more confusing second go-around of diminished ice time and healthy scratches.

Hitchcock and Filatov met—for about 10 minutes, right before the fourth game of the season, against the Calgary Flames—at center ice. By the accounts of the local print media, it was quite a scene as Hitchcock, tapping his stick, at times, on the ice, "informed" Filatov as to what's expected of him, at the NHL level.

What follows is what the local print media disclosed on the exchange/session—call it what you may:

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Besides letting Filatov know he'd be a healthy scratch for that evening's game, Hitchcock also emphasized that Filatov needs to be more competitive on the puck. In short, Hitch wants Filatov thinking "quality over quantity."

But the most interesting element is that both player and coach conceded that Nikolai Zherdev has been discussed in relation to Filatov's development. If you recall, the relationship between Hitchcock and Zherdev wasn't exactly rosy, although Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson did reach out and work with the enigmatic Zherdev, to the point of making him more productive, before trading him in July, 2008, to the New York Rangers.

Filatov seems genuinely receptive to following Hitchcock's instruction, and has since worked on those recommended areas of improvement, and has demonstrated a willingness to compete on the puck and has generally improved in all facets of the game.

Then, more confusion: Part Deux.

Filatov gets the opportunity to get back into the lineup against the Phoenix Coyotes, on Oct. 28, this after a series of games in which Filatov was "healthy scratched"—not injured, just benched. Filatov responded by playing, quite easily, his best game of the season. While he didn't factor into the lone goal of the first period, trust me, he was the most dominant offensive player on the ice for the CBJ.

Then, after logging over six minutes of quality ice time, Filatov got to play a whopping 2 shifts, totaling 1 minute and 40 seconds of ice time.

Hitchcock's explanation for the sudden (ice time) drop? "Well, we were in a lot of special team situations." Wait, isn't the power play (PP) one of those special teams situations? The Blue Jackets, after the first period, after leading 1-0, were thoroughly dominated by the 'Yotes, the rest of the way, losing 4-1.

You mean to tell me, when the score was 2-1 and 3-1, and they were on the PP, that Filatov couldn't have been on the PP unit? Now, remind me, who was on the PP unit when they scored their lone goal? Heck, I'll answer it, for you: It was Filatov.

Filatov doesn't see the ice, basically, for the rest of the game, but, more than a few veterans absolutely stunk up the joint. What was their "punishment?" Not only plenty of ice time, the remaining two periods, but, continued high ice time minutes the next few games.

Let me demonstrate this confusion, numerically, by comparing the TOI of Derek Brassard and Jake Voracek, at this time, last season—their first full season's with the CBJ.

Brassard's TOI - Games 10 - 12, 2008-2009 season:

16:33

12:10

17:02

Voracek's TOI - Games 10 - 12, 2009-2009 season:

16:23

14:27

12:18

Filatov's TOI - Games 10 - 12, 2009-2010 season:

9:51

8:43 (Phoenix game, Oct. 28th, per above)

Healthy Scratch

Now, the Blue Jackets organization reported that Filatov experienced back spasms, for the games in which he was scratched, both against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals; however, the organization also indicated that, even if Filatov was healthy, he would have been healthy scratched, for those games.

Then, still more confusion: Part Trois.

Filatov returned to the lineup against the San Jose Sharks, and logged a season high of 11:33 TOI. This was more due to a rash of injuries to the CBJ forwards than any reward, trust me. And, before you get too excited about that jump in TOI, Filatov then logged 5:48 TOI, last night, against the Thrashers, a team, one would think, given their propensity for full-throttle offensive pressure, would be tailor-made for someone like Filatov.

Last I checked, the San Jose Sharks apply that same kind of offensive pressure, combined with even more grittiness. The reason I mention the Sharks' grit is the very reason Filatov has been healthy-scratched for the games in which he has been benched.

All players develop differently but Filatov, Brassard and Voracek are all, elite blue chip talents. Both Brassard and Voracek didn't look much better or worse last season than Filatov did, at the same stage, this season.

Add to this, Ken Hitchcock's assessment of Filatov's talents—Hitch has gone on record and likened Filatov to another pretty decent Russian talent—a guy by the name of Pavel Bure, stating that Filatov is the type of player who, in one fail swoop—AKA the wicked wrister—can change the complexion of a game.

Now, I know the team is doing pretty well, leading the Central Division standings, with a 8-5-2 record, but, the team also started 5-1-0, so, the notion that Filatov isn't playing well enough to take regular shifts and decent TOI, hold little, if any, weight. This team is 3-5-2 over their past ten games—no one, outside of Rick Nash, was playing well enough to log excessive minutes, in comparison to Filatov's putrid minutes.

Filatov's either good enough to play in the NHL, or he isn't—if he is good enough, then play him. If he isn't good enough to warrant TOI, then send him some place where he can obtain some experience—that plan sure worked for Kris Russell, when they sent him down, early last season, and, upon returning, took his game up a few notches, much closer to the team's expectations.

The coaches either trust him or they don't. If they don't, please then, don't leave him hanging. This treatment of Filatov isn't doing anyone any good. The organization is killing his confidence and they're killing his trade value, if that is, indeed, their possible intention.

Last I recall, Filatov's name was offered by other teams, during trade discussions, this past offseason and during last year's trade deadline. I also seem to recall Filatov being ranked the No. 1 prospect in the NHL.

Which leads me to believe that there is more to this story...something, off-ice, that is the reason for this confusing, inconsistent, treatment of the budding superstar

Is Filatov showing up late for practices? Is he staying out too late, painting the town (pretty hard to do, BTW, in Columbus, Ohio)? Is he not dedicating himself, seriously, to the NHL? Has he broken any laws? Does he have a bad attitude? Is he a bad teammate?

For those last two, all that has been reported is to the contrary, but, it could be spin—I recall the positive spin on Zherdev—a changed man, during his last season, here, only to be later told it hadn't really improved, all that much. Ask NY Rangers fans - they witnessed his enigmatic ways, first hand.

Although, being a former auditor, I probably have a higher than normal conspiracy quotient, but, something is awry. I have watched Filatov play, every game, this season, and I haven't seen this horrible play to warrant this inconsistent treatment. Sure, he's made his share of rookie mistakes, but, last I checked, he's a rookie!

As mentioned, above, there are veterans, on this team, during the 1-4-1 stretch, play far worse, only to keep logging the TOI. And, as mentioned in a previous article, it seems far too long a leash—status quo—for the veterans, and far too short a leash for this world-class talent. Let the kid play!