Filatov Driven to Be an NHL Star
And any day now he's going to obtain a license to drive in the United States.
"I have one in Russia, but last season was so busy and so crazy I never took the time to get my license in the U.S.," the 19-year-old Filatov told FanHouse in a phone conversation over the weekend. "I'm taking care of this before the start of the regular season."
Count on him spending this one in Columbus after a year in Syracuse that could be described as an education in every sense.
"I grew as a person," he said. "I lived on my own for the first time in my life. I was still only 18. I had an apartment near the arena and I learned to cook for myself and clean. The experience was really successful and really hard."
That wasn't the half of it. He left the Syracuse Crunch for three weeks in December to play for Team Russia at the World Junior Championships in Ottawa. He scored a hat trick for Columbus against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 10 with his confidence boosted post-WJC. Unable to earn a steady shift under coach Ken Hitchcock because of a lack of polish in the defensive zone, Filatov was returned to Syracuse.
Soon after, the left wing came down with a severe bronchial infection, missed six weeks of action and lost 10 pounds off an already thin, 6-0, 170-pound frame. When he finally built back his strength, he played his best hockey of year for the Crunch and was recalled by Columbus for the team's playoff drive. There he mostly watched and learned.
Otherwise, it was an uneventful season.
"Nikita was a teenager in a new country and a new league," said Syracuse head coach Ross Yates. "It's fair to say he experienced just about everything you could expect a young man to handle. I thought Nikita did extremely well. He's going to have to learn how to play for Ken Hitchcock, and that will take time. But he's an electric player. Offensively, there are few players anywhere in the world with his ability."
While waiting for Filatov to learn the technical aspects of playing in the neutral and defensive zones, Hitchcock has lathered on the praise for his future star's artistic ability.
"Nik's the kind of player who doesn't come around very often," said Hitchcock. "If you give him an opportunity, he's going to score every time. How many guys do you know that can score from the top of the circles?
"He's learning the trust part of the game with the other four skaters on the ice. Keep in mind that every place he was before he joined our franchise, he was the only guy with the puck. He'd never played on the smaller surface, never played the North American style. In time, Nikita is going to be a great player for us."
The second-year pro, just four months older than 2009 first overall pick John Tavares, is going to get every opportunity from Hitchcock to be that player this season. Over the last few months, Filatov -- regarded across the board by Columbus and Syracuse personnel as a bright and gracious young man -- has said and done the right things.
He added 12 pounds of muscle after a summer of working out in Moscow with personal strength coach Alexander Troshin and players Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Zubov and Nikolai Zherdev. He turned down overtures from the KHL, saying his commitment was to the Blue Jackets. (The first year of his three-year Entry Level contract will kick in this season).
The threat of Filatov joining the KHL if he does not receive quality icetime in Columbus seems to never go away. But pressed by FanHouse, the 2008 sixth overall pick was incredulous.
"I understand the rumors to a certain point," said Filatov, "but I think I've made it very clear my goal is to play in the National Hockey League. This has been my dream for a long time and all I have said since before I was drafted. Look at everything that happened last year. I went through it to eventually be in the NHL."
Asked if he would listen to offers from the KHL if demoted to Syracuse, Filatov said, "I don't see any reason to even talk about it."
If Filatov wasn't a virtual lock when camp opened to start the season in the NHL, he is now. Veteran left wing Frederik Modin is out a month with a sprained knee. In back-to-back games over the weekend, speed wing Jason Chimera and tough forward Tom Sestito suffered serious head injuries.
For his part, Columbus general manager Scott Howson is not concerned about his potential 40-goal scorer leaving for Russia.
"Nikita sees what's happened the last few years with the big Russian stars like Ovechkin and Datsyuk," Howson told FanHouse this afternoon. "He saw Ovechkin practically own the NHL Awards show last season. There's no doubt in my mind that he's driven to be a star in the NHL."
Asked if he has watched how his countryman and video game cover boy Alexander Ovechkin has become arguably the NHL's biggest star, Filatov said, "Yes. It is an amazing story. Alexander is a model for many Russian players, someone to look up to."
Filatov laughed. "Hey, right now I just want to make the Columbus Blue Jackets."
Then he amended his objectives. "I want to make the team," Filatov said, "and I want to be a real part of the team."