DETROIT — This last week could determine not just whether the Red Wings’ playoff streak lives, but also Valtteri Filppula’s future with the team.
Filppula, 29, is an unrestricted free agent after this season and could easily command $5 million a season on the open market after making $3.5 million each of the past two seasons.
Filppula can be an enigmatic player. He has all the skill and speed and defensive prowess you could want in a forward but sometimes fails to show it.
Everyone thought that Filppula had taken that step forward last season when he set career highs in goals with 23, assists with 43, points with 66, shots on goal with 144 and plus-minus at plus-18.
Then came the lockout.
Filppula practiced with teammates in Troy before heading to his native Finland to play with his former team, Jokerit, and with his brother, Ilari.
But Filppula injured his knee in Finland and was not quite 100 percent when the lockout ended.
This season Filppula had just seven goals and eight assists and was minus-5 in 37 games. It’s quite a step back for a player who is supposed to be in his prime years.
“I don’t think I’ve been playing as well as I should,” Filppula acknowledged.
But Filppula was exactly the player the Wings thought he was Monday night in a 4-0 shutout of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Filppula’s speed forced the Coyotes to take holding and tripping penalties and — most shockingly — he shot the puck and scored a power play goal on a bad angle in the second period to give the Wings a 3-0 lead.
Filppula was credited with three shots but actually had more that went off the post.
“It’s just great, get a goal, we needed him to get a goal, to be an important player, to be on the inside, shoot pucks, be dominant for us,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We count on him for that. Ideally, this goal (Monday) will help him take a step for us.”
Every Wings player is well aware that their 21-season playoff streak is on the line with three games to go and that they can’t afford to let two points slip away as they have been doing of late.
Daniel Cleary, who played on a line with Filppula and Johan Franzen, noticed Filppula’s jump at the morning skate.
“He was shooting the puck (Monday) morning,” Cleary said. “It was different seeing Fil shoot the puck on 2-on-1s and stuff. I thought he played real well, probably could have had three (goals).”
Since Filppula arrived in Detroit, he’s been encouraged to shoot more, which seems to go against his nature.
“He’s got a good shot, he’s obviously a creative player and creative players like to pass, just like (Pavel Datsyuk), they like to pass first,” Cleary said. “It’s in him. Certainly when he starts thinking shoot the puck in on net, especially late in the season, it’s where you’re going to score goals. It’s good to see because he’s an important player for us.”
Even after Monday, Filppula had just 71 shots on goal, fewer than players like Justin Abdelkader (9 goals, 89 shots), Cleary (9 goals, 88 shots) and even Jakub Kindl (4 goals, 73 shots).
There’s no reason that someone like Filppula, with the ice time he gets, should not be in the top five on the team in shots.
But if Filppula finds his groove and takes those shots this week and helps the Wings get back in the playoffs, he could make up for a lackluster season and remain a Red Wing.