The Tampa Bay Lightning have done all they can to temper expectations on their newest free agent signee, Valtteri Filppula.Sep 20, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Valtteri Filppula (51) controls the puck as St. Louis Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson (62) defends in front of Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) during the first period at the Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
This past summer, both management and the coaching staff took every opportunity to say Filppula wasn’t coming in to replace outgoing captain Vincent Lecavalier. Even so, Filppula has done nothing but impress Lightning fans at every opportunity thus far, so expectations are on the rise.
Before Tuesday’s game against the Nashville Predators, in his hotel room with the media, Jon Cooper was glowing about his new second line center.
“His puck protecting skills are as high end as they possibly could be,” Cooper said. “It’s really hard to get the puck away from him. He has confidence, exceptional stick skills, and he can skate. So, you add all that up and you get a pretty darn good hockey player.”
Of course, Filppula has been a “pretty darn good” hockey player for a number of years now with the Detroit Red Wings. The Lightning need him to be even better. Whether they’re willing to admit it or not, the signing of Filppula directly in the wake of Lecavalier’s departure signified a huge step in a radically different direction for the franchise.
Cooper went on:
“Offensively, defensively, he’s always in the right spot. “
And that’s exactly what the Lightning expect, and need, from Filppula.
Filppula’s role with the Red Wings was far smaller than it figures to be with the Lightning. The Bolts need Filppula to lead by example on the ice, with his work ethic and decision making. For casual fans, it might be hard to wrap your head around, but Filppula wasn’t brought here to score. He was brought here to provide something the Bolts have been missing over the last two seasons – a blue collar effort, shift-in, shift-out. Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman are gambling that the attitude will be contagious.
Yzerman, of course, has first-hand experience with Filppula – he was still captain of the Red Wings when Filppula played his first handful of NHL games. After that, Yzerman watched the first few seasons of Filppula’s career from the press box as the Red Wing’s vice president and alternate governor.
Jon Cooper and Steve Yzerman taken by Dolly Dolce
“I think he’s a complete player,” Yzerman said of Filppula shortly after signing him in July. “I think he’s extremely versatile. He can play all three forward positions.”
Of course, the inevitable comparisons to Lecavalier persisted throughout the summer, mostly because Filppula is coming in to fill the hole Lecavalier left in the roster. But lately, there’s a different sort of optimism brewing around Filppula. After seeing him in a few preseason games, and in practice with his new team, the comparisons to Lecavalier are becoming less and less frequent. These days, fans are more excited about the new elements Filppula brings to the team.
“He’s a completely different player than Vinny,” Yzerman said in July, with a shrug. “Totally different type of player.”
And that’s true. While Filppula has the potential to match Lecavalier’s most recent scoring numbers (forget about the vintage Vinny years), it’s his two-way game that the team coveted during free agent frenzy. The Lightning had no true premiere two-way forward as of July 5, 2013. They hope they have one now in Filppula. Whatever he was with the Red Wings, he’s expected to be more with the Lightning.
“We’ve changed our team,” Yzerman said. “We’ve acquired a good player who’s going to be a real positive contributor to our team, who’s a real good guy. We understand everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, he’s here to replace Vinny.’ He’s here to make us a better team, and he will make us a better team.”
Early signs are good.