Top 25 Under 25, no. 1: Nikita Filatov

Not the name you were expecting to see, is it?

No, this is not a joke. There's no Erik Karlsson post coming later in the week. Erik Karlsson is not on this list, over the protestations of some, because Erik Karlsson is not the team's top player under the age of 25. He's not even in the top 25. Looking at every other name on our list, the reasons why should be obvious: They're all trending upwards. Karlsson, on the other hand, has already peaked at the age of 21. He is not likely to ever repeat the season we saw last year. We're already seeing him regress before our eyes: he's trying to do too much, he's trying to shoot through people, he's choosing to take chances that are resulting in scoring opportunities for the opposition. He looks more like the player we saw in his rookie year than the like the player we saw last year. The regression is not as pronounced as, say, Tyler Myers', but we've already seen the best of Karlsson. Like it or not, he is trending downwards, and all of the praise fans are heaping on him this year doesn't change that reality.

Nikita Filatov comes in at number one on this list because with all due respect to everyone else on the list, he's the only one with the potential to become not just a franchise player, but a cornerstone player for the team.

The reality is that outside of truly generational talents, an elite winger is the kingmaker that turns good centers into great centers. Senators fans don't have to look further than Jason Spezza paired with Milan Michalek versus Jason Spezza paired with Dany Heatley for proof of that. As a team, the Senators have been at their most lethal with an elite winger in the lineup. First, with Marian Hossa, then later with the aforementioned Heatley--both with Daniel Alfredsson playing on the other side. When Heatley departed, the team's playoff window shut, and it shut hard. The team didn't just miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997, they wound up rebuilding--a phrase never before uttered in the history of the franchise.

As we've already noted several times, Spezza's career is drifting slowly towards the "not-elite" category, though it will still be quite a few years before he gets there. Whether we want it to be true or not, his decline is inevitable; time ravages everyone eventually. More importantly, the team does not have a replacement for Spezza in its pipeline. That, of course, is not surprising--elite centermen are hard to find.

What the team does have, however, is Kyle Turris. Turris looks good, but not great. As we noted yesterday:

[B]ased on the few games we've seen so far Turris has looked [...] more like a complementary second-line centreman who's pretty good at most things but not exceptionally good at many of them.

In other words, the kind of guy who needs a kingmaker on his wing, and there's only one of those in the entire organization.

Filatov, though no fault of his own, has been a pariah for most of his career. He was playing professional hockey at the age of 15, he was selected first overall in the CHL import draft, he was ranked first overall for the entire year among European skaters by the NHL Central Scouting bureau. Yet everywhere he's gone, he's been slapped with a label before he has a chance to even prove himself. Much like most law enforcement, who are scorned until needed, Filatov has always been derided even as teams fight for the right to acquire his talent.

To say he was mismanged by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who drafted him 6th overall in 2008, is an understatement. They chose a player considered as offensively dynamic as Steven Stamkos and then-coach Ken Hitchcock demanded he play defense. It was, of course, an unnatural fit--like sour cream and pickle juice--yet despite playing just eight games in his rookie year, Filatov became the first Blue Jackets rookie to record a hat trick.

The Blue Jackets bounced him around, never letting him settle and simply be the player they drafted him to be. Yet despite playing in just 39 AHL games, he managed 32P (16G, 16A) and an AHL All-Star appearance. His reward was to be the player most often scratched as the team stumbled out of the gates in a season where Filatov was considered the early favorite for the Calder Trophy. When he wasn't scratched, he was played slightly over eight minutes a night. Like a stallion waiting to run free, Filatov asked to be allowed to return the the KHL, and instead of building their offense around him and Rick Nash, the team obliged.

Filatov left the Blue Jackets on November 17th. The team promptly went on a 4-12-7 slump, ultimately finishing with the second-worst record in the Western Conference, and recording zero wins in the month of April. Despite the promise of a clean slate the next year with a new head coach, Filatov was demoted to the AHL yet again. At that point, he was traded to the Senators for a 2011 third round pick.

And he hadn't even gotten unpacked before people were trying to link him with Alex Kovalev, another Russian on the team who had been labeled "enigmatic," which is generally code for "I'm too much of a coward to use the word lazy." Never mind that Filatov left his family on vacation in the Dominican Republic to attend a summer camp he wasn't required to attend: He was a self-entitled malcontent. He hadn't left Columbus for very long before the notorious, and completely unsubstantiated "Filly don't do rebounds" story reared its ugly head.

Filatov did everything the Senators organization asked of him, yet was only given nine games on the fourth line before being reassigned to Binghamton. The Senators coveted him when other teams didn't, and then gave him no chance to produce--just another in a long line of teams that want Filatov's skill and then immediately go about wasting it.

Among Senators prospects, there are none that carry the same pure hockey pedigree as Filatov. His shot is elite. His passing is elite. His skating is elite. His hockey sense is elite. The Senators, like so many teams before them, have recognized this. If they can find a way to get him back to North America, it's likely that he would not only address the looming scoring woes of this season, but erase Dany Heatley's name from the team's record books as well as help a passer like Turris elevate his game beyond where he can go on his own.

The Senators' future is bright, with many great players under the age of 25. Yet among them all, Nikita Filatov rises to the top because he has repeatedly demonstrated an elite skill set, and cannot be blamed for how teams have chosen to use--or not use--it thus far in his career.

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