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NHL exile Nikita Filatov praises old nemesis Ken Hitchcock

Ken Hitchcock was hated by Nikita Filatov, one of the NHL's biggest busts, but the Russian forward feels differently now.

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An unlikely voice has stepped up to express his regret that Ken Hitchcock will retire from coaching following the 2016-17 season.

Nikita Filatov, who famously clashed with the hard-nosed coach when the two were in Columbus, told Russia's Sport-Express that he was very sorry to hear that Hitchcock is calling it a career after one more campaign behind the bench. And he offered a bit of unsolicited advice to members of next season's St. Louis Blues.

“Any hockey player, especially the young, should be happy to work with him,” Filatov said.

It's a shocking about-face from a player best remembered as the poster boy for wasted talent. The sixth pick in the 2008 draft, Filatov came to Columbus expecting to make an immediate impact on the strength of his prolific offensive skills. It didn't quite work out that way. He spent parts of three seasons with the Blue Jackets, but his unwillingness to commit to both ends of the ice earned him long-term residency in Hitch's doghouse.

At the time, he was too stubborn to recognize the opportunity he was being given by the Cup-winning coach.

“Once he called me and said, 'Nikita, I want to offer you a compromise. Everything in the defensive zone, you listen to me. Everything from the red line to their goal, you do it your way.

“It all fell on deaf ears. I thought, what does he know? I'm a forward who can score goals. Don't touch my game. Now, I understand that he was trying to do me a favor.”

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Filatov recalled his complete confusion at Hitchcock's reaction to his first NHL hat trick. “He said, 'Nikita, it's good that you scored three goals, but I was most pleased that you blocked that shot in the third period.' I'm thinking, what is he talking about? Three goals, and he thinks the best part is a blocked shot! But Ken demanded versatile hockey. He knew that I would not last long in the league playing like that.”

As the relationship soured, others tried to intervene. Filatov recalled one assistant coach pulling him aside and assuring him that Hitchcock's way was the right way. “He was convinced that a great future awaited me if only I would follow his advice,” Filatov said. “But I wouldn't listen.”

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Eventully, the Jackets wrote him off, settling for a third-round pick from Ottawa just to be rid of him. He didn't last long there, either. Filatov played just nine games with the Senators during the 2011-12 season before being shipped off to AHL Binghamton. That experiment failed after just 15 games, although for very different reasons.

“Ottawa's general manager Brian Murray treated me very well,” he said. “He told me he believed in me and that I'd be given a chance to get back to the NHL, but I couldn't stay.”

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​Filatov blamed financial difficulties for his decision. “I won't say how much I owed—the amount would shock some people—but I had debts I couldn't repay on an AHL salary.

“I won't say that I spent days and nights at the roulette table or playing blackjack. I went the casinos, but that wasn't the worst thing. My whole life was a blur. I was young and had a lot of money and I spent it too freely.

“That was my way. I was young and didn't know any better. Maybe I needed to go through all this to understand what's really important.”

Filatov, now 26 years old, sounds like he finally has his personal life in order. He's married, and says he spends all his free time with his wife. He also says he hasn't touched hard liquor in a year and a half. “Right now, I have very different interests, needs and desires,” he said.

Now he's focused on getting his career back on track. Filatov is starting fresh next season with Lada Togliatti. He split this past season between Vladivostok and Moscow Dynamo. His totals, four assists in 26 games, shows how far he has to go.

His youthful indiscretions behind him, a more mature Filatov is using the lessons he learned to move forward.

“Not everything was bad,” he said. “Yes, there were difficult times, but now it's all over. I became a completely different person. I've changed my attitude about hockey and about life.

"I won't be a distraction. I want to lead.”

(s/t to Igor Eronko)