I'm starting to get why Columbus fans are so frustrated with the team's handling of top prospect Nikita Filatov.
Watching the Blue Jackets try to slip a defensive bridle on the joyously creative winger reminds me of a time when I was consoling a buddy in the wake of his ill-fated union to a vivacious party girl.
"I can't understand it," he moped. "I figured she'd want to settle down after we got married."
Not sure if the palm print I planted upside his head is still there, but hopefully the force of the blow managed to reconnect those common sense wires that clearly had come loose. I've never understood that thinking. There's nothing wrong with a little growth and change, but if a certain quality attracts you to someone in the first place, don't complain if that's what they keep bringing to the table.
Like my buddy, the Jackets had their eyes open when they selected Filatov sixth overall in 2008. A couple of remarkable performances at that year's World Juniors and the Five Nations Under-18 established him as a highlight reel-caliber offensive wizard. Instant excitement. Scouts raved about his speed and agility, his stickhandling and vision, his creativity and finish. There was talk at various points that some teams, if given the chance, would take him over the eventual No. 1 pick, Steven Stamkos.
No one suggested the Filatov had a game anywhere near as well-rounded as Stamkos, though. Ask them questions about Filatov's play away from the puck and you'd hear a few mumbled "Well, you knows" and then it would be back to a breathless description of an outside-inside move that left a defender scrambling for his jock strap and a flustered goalie fishing the puck out of his net.
That's who Filatov was...and that's who he is. He's a bright-lights, high-wattage performer, which has Jackets supporters wondering why the team seems determined to add a dimmer switch to his game. Especially considering how well that approach worked with another high pick: the equally gifted, though less motivated Nikolai Zherdev.
Is Filatov simply a bad fit for the Jackets? Could be. Columbus has decided to loan him to CSKA of Russia's KHL for the rest of the season, in hope that he will better develop his game on familiar home turf.
Not that anyone's thinking of giving up on this marriage. Ken Hitchcock's managed to sell his defense-first message before, most famously to Mike Modano and Brett Hull. Their conversion was a key factor as Dallas transformed from challengers to champs back in 1999.
Of course, it's one thing to sell the virtues of self-sacrifice to a veteran who has tasted personal success and now has a hankering for a ring. But in the case of Filatov, it's like the Amish tradition of rumspringa in reverse: yanking a carefree teenager out of a life of fast cars and parties and forcing him into one of industriousness and piety. Some kids will slip naturally into the role -- Jakub Voracek is a prime example of a player properly wired to play in Hitch's system and an ideal choice to fit the team's philosophy.
And maybe someday it'll all click for Filatov after he gets back. Under Htich's stern tutelage, he could mature into the natural successor to Pavel Datsyuk, a breathtaking force of nature at both ends of the ice. But watching him struggle on such a short leash through the early going, getting limited opportunities on the nights he's not relegated to the press box, it's easy to imagine this ending badly.
Filatov, to his credit, says all the right things about wanting to prove himself in this league and appears to be working diligently to earn his place on this team by responding to Hitchcock's prodding. Still, he's got to be tired of trying to be something that he's not.
The Jackets have made great strides under Hitchcock, precisely because of his demand for disciplined play. If he manages to add that element to Filatov's game while allowing him enough breathing room to maximize his offensive gifts, it'll be a real testament to his skill as a coach.
If not, then Columbus suffers from mismanaging another critical asset.
Contrast that situation to Dallas, where Fabian Brunnstrom's adjustment to the North American game is being handled more effectively in his second season by new coach Marc Crawford.
The Swedish winger doesn't carry the same baggage as a top-10 pick like Filatov, but as the most hotly pursued European free agent in the summer of 2008, Brunnstrom came burdened with his own set of expectations. While he showed some finish last season, scoring 17 goals, there was still plenty of criticism of his all-around game.
I remember talking to a number of hockey people associated with teams in the Brunnstrom hunt. While everyone raved about his playmaking and vision, not one of them described the object of their pursuit with phrases like "two-way" or "200-foot player" or even simply "responsible," so it's hard to imagine that anyone in Dallas was surprised to learn that Brunnstrom can be an adventure when the puck's not on his stick.
No doubt his struggles have caused Crawford to cast despairing eyes to the heavens a time or two, but at least the coach has been willing to make the most of the cards in his hand. His teaming of Brunnstrom with ham-and-egger Brian Sutherby and rookie center Tom Wandell -- a wonderful surprise himself -- resulted in a fourth line that's emerged as one of the team's most effective units over the past couple weeks. It's also provided something of a nurturing environment for Brunnstrom. The defensive challenges are less onerous with match-ups coming mostly against other third- and fourth-liners, and the reliability of his linemates gives him a bit of cushion for inevitable mistakes.
Brunnstrom gets nearly 12 minutes a night (50 percent more than Filatov), including a regular chance to flash some of that skill on the power play. He's also getting plenty of public support...even on nights when his shortcomings are tough to overlook. Crawford pointed to Brunnstrom as one of the team's best performers after a tough shootout loss to Florida on Oct. 30. In truth, he had his moments, scoring his only goal of the season and creating some havoc down low with a surprisingly diligent forecheck. But he'd also waved the red cape a couple of times in the defensive zone, including one blown assignment that directly resulted in a goal-against.
No doubt, Brunnstrom was reminded of his responsibilities after the game, but that show of public support, along with the continued opportunities to do what he does best, seems like the approach that will maximize the talents that led to his signing in the first place.
That said, he may not finish the season in Dallas. The Stars have posted a help wanted sign for an experienced two-way blueliner, and Brunnstrom's name has come up as possible bait. He was inked by the previous regime, so GM Joe Nieuwendyk has no overriding loyalties here. If he has to ship the winger out to improve the Stars, he will. Chances are that several of teams who fell short in the bidding for his services will line up for another crack at him.
But if Brunnstrom stays, look for him to find his level sooner than later.
It's a lesson in asset management that that Jackets would do well to learn from.
Jimmy Howard's sloppy play in a 6-5 shootout loss to Edmonton on Oct. 29 left Red Wings fans pining for the good old days of Corrado Micalef and Ken Holland (yes, that Ken Holland). Fast-forward two weeks and there's a more relaxed atmosphere around the JLA. They're probably not quite ready to commit to stitching Howard's name and number on a new sweater, but after strong back-to-back efforts against Columbus and Vancouver, fans probably are at least willing to climb in off the ledge.
Not that the Wings themselves were quite so concerned, but the rookie's rock-solid performances in relief of a sick Chris Osgood allowed the injury-riddled team to focus on something other than the need for a reliable veteran backup.
"What needed to happen to Jimmy is what happened here, throwing up two one-goal games," said coach Mike Babcock, who praised Howard's approach after a 3-1 win over the Canucks. "He was above the blue paint tonight. He was square [to the shooter]. I thought he read the play well. And that's a good sign."
Howard was sensational in the first half when the Detroit end was under siege. The Wings were outshot 22-8 through the first 30 minutes, and the only puck that eluded him was a fortunate bounce off the body of Mason Raymond.
Two more keys to his success: improved lateral movement and aggressive use of his stick to break up chances in front. Both speak to increased confidence in his game.
He'll need it. He's expected to start again Saturday against Anaheim, a team well situated to take advantage of numerous turnovers of the kind committed by the Wings against Vancouver. With Osgood's workload set to be reduced significantly this season, Howard faces an enormous career opportunity. For the first time this season, there's reason to believe he can snatch it.
LEAFS PATCH HOLE IN SPITS
A decision this week by the Maple Leafs to return prospect Dale Mitchell to his former junior team sure feels like a turn of quid pro quo. Just last month, Leafs' prospect Jesse Blacker (58th overall, 2009) requested a trade from the Windsor Spitfires to a team where he could play a more prominent role and, presumably, expedite his development. Though they took a hit to their defensive depth, the Spits accommodated the 18-year-old by sending him to the Owen Sound Attack.
On Wednesday, the Leafs decided that Mitchell, a lightning-quick winger equally adept at agitating as scoring, wasn't getting enough ice with the AHL Toronto Marlies. But instead of demoting him to the ECHL, they returned the 20-year-old to the OHL, where he'll add another layer of depth and experience to a Windsor team that now looks like an even better bet to repeat as Memorial Cup champs. ..
It's not often that YouTube lets me down, but apparently no one uploaded my favorite moment of last week: a big collision between the NHL's two biggest men: Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers. The Sabres' 6-8 rookie defender roamed deep into the offensive zone midway through the first period before setting his sights on the 6-9 defending Norris-winner who was digging out the puck from along the end boards. Three strides later, Myers launched a shoulder into Chara...and promptly was planted on his hind end. At this point, Myers still gives up the inch, and maybe 30 pounds, to Big Z, but you have to think it won't be long before Big Tex gets to return the favor...
TAKING THE PLEDGE
Helpful excerpt from an e-mail sent to me by an Eastern Conference scout in the wake of last week's 2010 Entry Draft preview column: "Were you sober when you decided to leave out [Maxim] Kitsyn?"
Don't think I'd quite hit the Bukowski Line when the 6-3, 194 left winger was cut from the list of the Top 30 prospects, but I'll try to keep my wits about me while watching him when the Subway Super Series gets underway Monday in Drummondville, Quebec. The Russian side traveling over for six games against the best in Canada's three junior leagues is marred by several glaring omissions (Kirill Kabanov, Vladimir Tarasenko and Stanislav Galiev in particular), but that creates an opportunity for Kitsyn to re-establish himself as an elite prospect.
Kitsyn's name had considerable heat early last season when the then-16-year-old scored three goals in his first three games with Metallurg of the KHL, but cooled after a couple of nondescript tournament appearances. His performance in this series, and the World Juniors, will be critical to restoring his stock. Other draft-eligible names to watch: Alexander Burmistrov (who'll play only in the games in Barrie and Windsor) and Ivan Telegin. The Russian side also features Igor Bobkov (Anaheim, 2009) and Kirill Petrov (New York Islanders, 2008).