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Nikita Filatov Trade Could Bring Bounty For Blue Jackets

Nov 17, 2009 – 5:25 PM
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Christopher Botta

Christopher Botta %BloggerTitle%

The Columbus Blue Jackets drafted a super-skilled freelancing forward a year ago and are now wondering why he's not developing into Jere Lehtinen. So on Tuesday, Nikita Filatov took his sticks and went home to Russia and the KHL -- as the Blue Jackets always knew he could.

Now the big question is, where do the Blue Jackets and their "prized" prospect go from here?

Columbus can continue to live in denial and hope Filatov and head coach Ken Hitchcock meet in the middle next season. (No doubt Hitch will have to design that play). Or they can deal with reality.

The Blue Jackets will likely listen to offers for Filatov between the end of the holiday transaction moratorium and the trade deadline on March 3. Think of the package of veterans general manager Scott Howson might be able to acquire to help put his team over the top. One forward and one defenseman to excel in Hitchcock's system could place Columbus in the top tier of the Western Conference.

It was only five months ago The Hockey News ranked Filatov as the top prospect in the game. While this latest saga does not upgrade his reputation among old school hockey executives -- the kind of guys who'd rather have a grinder from Saskatoon than a 40-goal scorer from Moscow -- don't think for a second that Filatov has been written off as a bust.

As an 18-year-old living on his own last year as a minor leaguer in Syracuse, Filatov had 16 goals and 16 assists in just 39 games with the Crunch. He was one of the standout players with bronze medalist Russia at last year's World Junior Championships. The most intriguing aspect of his trip home is that he'll get to prove himself all over again against players his age at this year's WJC. The better Filatov performs, the more the Blue Jackets' price increases.

And they will trade him. It's just a matter of time. If they don't get equal value before March 3, maybe Filatov will play more games for Columbus next season before everyone realizes there's no turning back. But his best value figures to be in the aftermath of the WJC.

There are no villains in this story, perhaps only mis-managers. Hitchcock has been the best thing to happen to the Blue Jackets organization since it opened shop. It just so happened he was the worst possible fit for Filatov. When you consider what Hitchcock has accomplished in the game -- 1,000 games coached and counting -- and how he helped developed champions in Dallas after introducing them to the defensive side of the ice, no one is blaming him. Filatov, without question, has some growing up to do. He's 19 years old.

When Filatov was learning the North American game in Syracuse last winter, I asked Hitchcock about his young student. "Nik's one of those players who come around maybe once every 10 years," said the coach. "He's a gifted, gifted player. 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?"

I remember thinking at the time that Hitchcock so lathered on the praise, it sounded like advertising. A year later, Filatov is back in Russia and the Blue Jackets are forced to consider dealing him. If they wait too long, they could have another Nik Zherdev situation. If they play this right, they can move off their failed gamble at sixth overall in 2008 and become a much better team in the next three months.

Let the bidding begin.
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