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(MATHIEU BELANGER)
(MATHIEU BELANGER)

Filatov finds a comfort zone Add to ...

There will be international hockey tournaments on North American soil in the future, and we will surely see Nikita Filatov at some of those.

But in the near-term, you have to wonder if this is the last time the 19-year-old budding superstar will play on this continent. Filatov, Russia's world junior team captain, asked for - and received - a loan to the KHL this season, after much clashing with Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock.

He is a supremely gifted offensive player, and he proved it last Monday in a 2-0 victory over Finland. He threaded a pass through two defencemen, and several sticks and skates, to set up the opening goal. He scored the second one on a pinpoint slap shot.

But he won't be making any short lists for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, given to the NHL's best defensive forward, any time soon. And, on Hitchcock's team, failure to play both end of the rink means limited minutes. By mid-November, after 13 games where he averaged eight minute of ice time, the Muscovite had had enough.

Filatov was lent to the CSKA of the KHL, his hometown club where he played junior hockey and developed into the sixth overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft. He has 14 points in 12 games.

The Russian club is paying his salary while the Blue Jackets retain his contractual rights through 2012, coupled with an agreement that he is to be returned after the European season ends this spring. General manager Scott Howson said that if Columbus is still playing at that time, Filatov may be back in the NHL team's lineup.

But there is also another scenario.

If Filatov wants to stay in Russia, the Blue Jackets have little recourse. They can demand he be returned, but they cannot go over and apprehend him.

So, because he holds some cards, when Filatov was asked when he planned to return to the NHL, he gave a coy response.

"I hope I'll be back next year, but right now, it's really hard to say because it will again be a tough decision," he said. "I have to be sure if I'll be playing there. We'll see in the summertime."

Asked if he could see himself playing for Hitchcock, Filatov said: "We'll see. We'll see. You never know."

Filatov said his Russian teammates have been amused with his transformation. He now blocks shots and back-checks - two areas that were absent from his game until Hitchcock got hold of him.

Though the relationship is uneasy, Filatov said it was not as bad as a recent characterization in a Russian news report. The story, which was translated into English and appeared on Yahoo.com, quoted Filatov as saying Hitchcock would single him out in practice and embarrass him in front of teammates. He is also quoted as saying that Hitchcock "didn't give me a chance" and "did not plan on trusting me."

Last Monday, Filatov said much was lost in translation and "I can't say that he was shouting or yelling at me in front of the guys or making me upset."

But Filatov doesn't deny that life and hockey are more enjoyable in his homeland. He says he is improving because of the heavy workload, and is even maintaining his defensive progress. He says he still dreams of making it in North America, but he also considers the KHL an option for next season. He says the league has improved in all facets - competitiveness, arenas and facilities, team services - since he last played there in 2007-08.

"I'm really happy about being back," he said. "It's a real option for me, and I'm going to be thinking about it in the summer."

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Howson is left wondering. He doesn't want to lose a high draft pick and terrific offensive talent for nothing, but he also must support his coach. Asked if Filatov and Hitchcock can co-exist, Howson paused for a second before answering.

"I think they can," he said. "They're both good at what they do, and they'll have to find a way to co-exist."

 

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