If I asked you what you thought of when I said the word “unknown,” what would you come up with? Would you think of the future? Would you think of insecurities? Would you think of Soundgarden?
The concept of the great unknown can make different people think of different things. How does Patrick Kane get cabs anymore? What’s the meaning of life? What’s going on in Paris Hilton’s mind? Seriously, there are some things that we’ll never figure out.
One of the biggest unknowns in the hockey world is how draft picks and prospects will pan out. Every year there are guys who were picked in the 1st round who disappoint and guys who were picked in the 7th round that surprise. There’ll be guys who receive a courtesy invite to training camp only to earn a spot with the big club—and likewise there will be guys who are depended upon to mature into a better player and fall flat on their face.
This year, two of the highest profile unknowns are property of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both Ryan Johansen and Nikita Filatov are two of the most highly thought of prospects NOT playing in the NHL. One of them started last year as a Calder Trophy candidate only to end up in Russia, while the other started last season as a mid-level unknown prospect. Fast-forward to today and you have two players who could hold the Blue Jackets short-term future in their exceptionally-skilled hands. If they both develop as GM Scott Howson hopes, Columbus will be one of the most potent young teams in the entire NHL. If their question marks start to overshadow their potential, then that potent NHL lineup could turn impotent faster than you can say, “It’s been 4 hours and I’m calling my doctor.”
Filatov has been all over the map in the last year—literally and figuratively. He started the year in Columbus with huge expectations, pissed off his defensive-minded coach, earned his way into the doghouse, asked to be released to Russia, and finally was almost a point-per-game player in the second best league in the world. All of this was on the heels of a season where he finished almost a point-per-game in the AHL and scored 4 goals in 8 games at the NHL level. Oh, and in addition to all of that, he’s participated in the last THREE World Junior Championships. I don’t care who you are, that’s a busy man.
One look at any prospect listing will show you just what he is capable of. He’s supposed to be one of the best players in the world not yet in the NHL. But then again, he was supposed to be last year, as well. Working in his favor, he’s put on some weight and could potentially enter training camp at 190 lbs. That’s a huge deal for a guy who had some problems with the NHL’s physical play.
The Blue Jackets look like they’re making a renewed commitment to helping the uber-talented sniper back into the NHL. They sent development coach Tyler Wright to Mother Russia to work with Filatov, as well as to get an idea of where the 20-year-old is mentally. Aside from traveling half-way around the world to reach out to a prospect, newly hired head coach Scott Arniel has already gone on record saying that Filatov will have a “clean slate” with the new coaching staff. It sure sounds like they’re banking on him coming over next season and fulfilling all that potential that people see.
At this point, I don’t think anyone knows what to expect from Filatov. He could come over to Columbus and start tearing up the league from game 1. He could once again struggle playing two-way hockey against bigger players. Or he could end up favoring Russia over another potential disappointment in Columbus.
As we stand before the 2010-11 season, all we have with Filatov are unknowns. How does he feel about the organization after the coaching changes? How does the organization feel about him after watching him ask to leave for Russia? Will he be able to step into the Blue Jackets’ line-up and explode with the talent that has only teased us thus far?
All I know is, if there are more problems, we’ll see Filatov drift into that unknown area where players get traded because they “need a change of scenery.”
Let me give you a sentence and you tell me if you’d draft this player: “Late bloomer with slow feet who plays with talented wingers and accumulates a ton of assists.” Well hockey fans, that’s an accurate description of Columbus’ 2010 first round draft pick, Ryan Johansen. He’s a bit of a project—a project who was drafted 4th overall.
Of course, that single statement doesn’t exactly tell the entire story. At the same time, we could call him, “A smart 6’2” playmaking center who is one of the best passers/play-makers in the entire draft and has the ability to play a strong two-way game.” Again, all of that is true—but it doesn’t quite tell the entire story, either. His physical stature will tell you that he’s a big player—but he doesn’t play big. He’s not going to run around and create energy by throwing the body. But he is very smart with the way he uses his frame as he has a knack for shielding the puck from opponents and creating space for his teammates. Think of a poor-man’s Joe Thornton or Blake Wheeler in that respect.
When describing Johansen’s game, the most common comparisons are guys like Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, and Eric Staal. Unfortunately, there are some questions about his “compete level” on a nightly basis. Hopefully the Blue Jackets are patient with him and he’ll be able to work that out in Portland and the AHL. If he’s able to develop into any of those players, the Blue Jackets would be ecstatic that they finally found the top-flight center they’ve been looking for since they were established 10 years ago.
The truth of the matter is that Scott Howson shocked just about every person in Staples Center when the Blue Jackets called Johansen’s name (except Johansen himself). In passing up the highly rated defensemen who were still on the board (Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley), the Blue Jackets made a statement that they thought Johansen was clearly the best player available. They went with a guy who they can take their time with, let develop, and hopefully watch grow into the player they projected him to be. There are very few expectations for Johansen this year–but we know that will change in the future.
This year should go a long way towards clearing up some of the unknown surrounding the Blue Jackets and two of their most prized prospects. If Filatov doesn’t start showing signs of the player the Blue Jackets need him to be, this might be the last stop before the organization sends him somewhere else and tries to minimize their loses. If Johansen goes back to the Portland Winterhawks, we’ll see if he can continue on his ridiculous learning curve.
Either way, Blue Jackets fans will have a better idea of what they have. Hopefully it’s a little more than that empty space between Paris Hilton’s ears.