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Posted: Friday November 13, 2009 4:38PM; Updated: Tuesday November 17, 2009 4:01PM
Allan Muir
Allan Muir>INSIDE THE NHL

Jackets, Stars offer lessons in young asset management; more

Story Highlights

Flashy Nikita Filatov is being strait-Jacketed; Stars may deal Fabian Brunnstrom

Jimmy Howard's solid game against the Canucks was relief for Red Wings fans

Buffalo's towering Tyler Myers is a challenge for Boston's Zdeno "Big Z" Chara

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nikita-filatov.jpg
The elusive Nikita Filatov is a wizard with the puck. Without it, not so much.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

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.

fabian-brunnstrom.jpg
Still a Stars development project, Fabian Brunnstrom occasionally has big games.
Jim Cowsert/Icon SMI

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.

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