What's a hockey season without some controversy? Nobody imagined that 18 games into the season the Blue Jackets would find themselves with a goaltender controversy. Even more difficult to believe is that it's not the biggest story surrounding the CBJ today. Blue Jackets fans awoke Tuesday to a report in the Columbus Dispatch indicating that Nikita Filatov might be returning to Russia to play in the KHL. Less than 24 hours later the Blue Jackets made it official: Filatov is being "loaned" to CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League for the remainder of the season. Please tune in next week for the regularly scheduled episode of the Goaltender Controversy. We hope you'll enjoy this special presentation of the the Filatov Controversy.
There is no need to waste space rehashing the facts. Blue Jackets fans are well aware that Filatov was not playing, and it comes as no surprise that he was not happy about it. In fact, many Blue Jackets fans were not - and still aren't- happy about it either. When the Blue Jackets called up Tom Sestito to play on Monday against Edmonton, while Filatov once again was a healthy scratch, few fans imagined that it was anything other than a move to bolster the lineup in the wake of Raffi Torres being placed on injured reserve and Sammy Pahlsson being unable to go against the visiting Oilers. But anyone who watched Ken Hitchcock's postgame press conference live on Fox Sports Ohio could have sensed something bigger was brewing after this exchange occurred at the end of it (as reported by Portsline on Puck Rakers):
"In the post-game news conference, Hitchcock was asked if last night’s decision to scratch Filatov was different than previous times.
“How about we leave that one (alone) right now,” Hitchcock said. “Tommy played well tonight. I was happy with Tommy.”
What Porty didn't describe in his post was Hitch's body language when he gave this response, and the way he smiled ever-so-slightly when he said it. Maybe the smile meant that he knew something we didn't know. Or maybe it meant that he was getting what he wanted. Or both.
It's no secret that Hitch's approach to the game starts with fundamentally sound, responsible and reliable play in the Blue Jackets' own zone. It's no secret that Hitch has an affinity for big, strong players that can skate. What coach doesn't? But those kinds of players are even more important to Hitch given that he has very little to no affinity for small, young, offensive minded players that can't be counted on to forecheck and who have a tendency to turn over the puck. In this regard, Filatov is like a lot of young and gifted forwards when they make it to the NHL. What separates Filatov are his exceptional gifts. But one gets the impression that Filatov could have four arms, carry both a right-handed and left-handed stick and Hitch would still have no use for him at this point.
All of which begs the question: why did the Blue Jackets draft Filatov in the first place? It was well known going into the 2008 draft that he brought virtually no defensive skills to the table. Check out this post from Puck Daddy that ran on June 18, 2008 entitled, "Five Reasons Why You Don't Want to Draft Nikita Filatov". Granted, it's all very tongue-in-cheek, but here is the pre-draft take on Filatov's defensive skills (or lack thereof):
"Scout 1 on Russianprospects.com doesn't even mention a defensive game. Scout 2: "Defensively tries to help, but is marginal in his own zone, preferring to break out into an offensive rush." Our friend Chris Botta on NYI Point Blank offers a third scout take: "Right now, he couldn't check anyone in the NHL, but his desire to learn will result in Filatov becoming an adequate player in his own end." Alexander Ovechkin worked his ass off to be better than adequate; will Filatov settle for "occasional liability?"
Howson had to know what he was getting. And so did Hitchcock it can be assumed. Porty says that the Filatov Controversy has become a bit contentious between the two of them. Might this contentiousness harken back to the 2008 draft? Perhaps we will find out in the coming days. Either way, the question still remains: why draft him if he didn't fit into Hitch's plans? Did both Howson and Hitch plan on the team defense being a lot better than it is right now, allowing them to be able to cover Filatov's deficiencies? Did they plan on Filatov growing another four inches and putting on 50 pounds? Whatever the thinking was at the time, Howson has placed his fanny so squarely on the hot seat with this one that he might need some burn ointment before it is all said and done. For more on this mess, here's an interesting take from Alan Muir of Sports Illustrated that was written last Friday, well before news of Filatov's exodus broke.
Porty says that Filatov wants to play for Russia in the world junior championships in December. Maybe that's what is really at the heart of Filatov's restlessness. But once he is gone, there is no guarantee that he will come back to the Blue Jackets or even the NHL. He says he wants to come back, and he says he believes he can still play for Hitchcock. And Howson says he expects Filatov to be be in training camp next year. What Howson isn't saying is that the CSKA Moscow and the KHL are probably not looking at this as a loan, the "agreement" notwithstanding. It's not hard to fathom that both will do everything in their power to promote his success and retain him. And it's not hard to fathom that if and when Filatov returns to the NHL it might be on a team that is willing to accept him for what he is, an intriguing prospect with elite offensive skills and a huge upside. All of which points to. . . . . . . . the Trade Deadline Controversy. Check your local listings in mid-February for broadcast times.
Here it all is in Filatov's own words.
When it comes to the Goaltender Controversy, timing is everything. While Steve Mason's struggles this season have not gone unnoticed in Columbus, the situation has not been producing a lot of smoke in the NHL sky. Yet. The Blue Jackets poured some flame retardant on the situation this past weekend by announcing that Mason was suffering from back spasms and hinting that a call-up from Syracuse might be in the offing. Something tells me this little campfire might start getting more attention from NHL park rangers during the upcoming five game road trip, especially if Mattieu Garon continues to impress.
The flip side to the Filatov Controversy is the arrival of Tom Sestito. My read on Hitchcock's response at the above referenced press conference was that he is overjoyed to have Sestito in Columbus. The Jackets lack of a big, tough body in the lineup, one that is not hesitant to scrap when needed, has been exposed with disturbing frequency so far this season. Sestito wasted no time embracing that role Monday night against Edmonton. His tilt with Jason Strudwick was a spirited one and Sestito held his own, although the consensus at hockeyfights.com is that Strudwick came away with the win. Sestito also showed a penchant for taking up space around the crease, and had some very strong shifts overall. If he keeps that up, Hitchcock might be wearing a full grin in a few weeks. And Sestito's parents will have to learn how to work the picture-in-picture feature on their television.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are off to their best start ever. Which makes it awfully difficult to say there is any controversy about any of this at all. What's a hockey season without much controversy? A winning one I suppose. As my favorite band sings, "Ain't life grand."
And those are the Matters of Weight for November 17, 2009.