|Nikita Filatov has a new lease on hockey life in Ottawa and is excited about getting started for real on Friday, when the Senators open their 2011-12 season in Detroit (Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
There is a newfound bounce in his step, an unmistakable feeling of joy almost every second he spends on the ice.
Nikita Filatov grins at the suggestion he appears to be reborn in his new hockey home. But after three unfulfilling seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is no doubt the 21-year-old Russian forward is embracing his new hockey life for all it's worth.
"Hockey is big fun again," he says with an enthusiastic smile, just days before he'll make his regular-season debut in an Ottawa Senators uniform. "It's been a good start so far and the guys, the atmosphere, the city ... I've liked everything."
Fun is a word you'll hear often in conversation with Filatov, who had precious little of it with the Blue Jackets after they made him the No. 6 overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. That chapter of his career started at Scotiabank Place, so perhaps it's fitting he gets to begin authoring the next one in the same building.
"I'm back in the game," Filatov said earlier today before the Senators headed off on a season-opening two-game road trip that begins Friday against the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit (7 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). "I'm back to having fun on the ice and just really excited to feel that (way) again ... to score and to have fun."
It is precisely that type of environment the Senators have strived to surround the offensively-gifted Filatov with since his arrival at training camp three weeks ago.
"We're trying to make it that way for him," said veteran centre Jason Spezza, who's likely to have Filatov on his wing to start the season. "There was a lot of pressure on him, being a high pick in Columbus, and sometimes there are unfair expectations on a young guy. I think here, maybe the expectations are a little bit lower, but he's still getting an opportunity. So it's a good situation for him."
While Filatov has yet to celebrate his first goal in an Ottawa uniform, his creativity and high skill level were on full display throughout the pre-season. It's the biggest reason the Senators felt compelled to surrender a third-round pick to Columbus at the 2011 entry draft to obtain Filatov's services.
"I think he's a real high-end skilled kid," said Senators general manager Bryan Murray. "He's very much an NHL skater, he very much has the hands and the head to play in this league. It's just a matter of watching him as we go forward and (seeing if) he can contribute. And he has to be an offensive player and get points ... to be a contributor."
Senators head coach Paul MacLean is putting Filatov in a position to make that happen, setting him up on a line with Spezza and speedy winger Milan Michalek.
"We felt that if Nikita was going to play on our team, it was going to be in the top six," said MacLean. "He has the still level to be a top-six forward in this league, so we're giving him that opportunity. I don't think he's played his way out of that opportunity at this point."
Filatov also seems to have found a good fit on a team that is pointing in a more youthful direction as the 2011-12 campaign begins. And he's one of the youngest of the bunch.
"It's helping me a lot," he said of the cast that surrounds him. "The atmosphere is getting way easier, way better and I just feel more comfortable here. I also need to say the veteran group is very easygoing helping a lot ... (there are) lots of jokes and it's easy to get into the atmosphere here."
To hear Spezza tell it, Filatov's personality is a good match for the group.
"He's fun loving when he comes to the rink," said Spezza. "You can tell he enjoys playing the game."
And Filatov can't wait to get started on Friday in the Motor City.
"I'm really excited," he said. "It's just so easy and so much fun here. The atmosphere is great and I'm just really excited for the first game."
Around the boards
Centre Peter Regin (shoulder) skated with his teammates today at the Bell Sensplex, but has yet to be cleared for contact. However, he's on the road trip and is still hopeful he might return to the lineup Friday in Detroit or Saturday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200). "I'm happy. I'm very excited about how it felt today," said Regin. "I want to get a couple of days in with good practice and we'll see how it reacts, then take it from there." ... Forward Jesse Winchester (shoulder) skated on his own before practice today, a sign that he's closer to making his return from an injury suffered Sept. 18. "He's progressing very well and he's supposed to be able to join us in practice next week when we come back," said MacLean. "He's made some big strides in the last four or five days and that's a positive for him." ... The Senators will practise Wednesday at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont., then bus to Detroit later in the day to begin preparations for Friday's opener.