Valtteri Filppula making Lightning into bona fide contender

Lightning center Valtteri Filppula signed a five-year, $25 million deal with Tampa Bay as a free agent last July.   

Sergei Belski

BRANDON, Fla. — After another practice during a seamless transition, Valtteri Filppula tried to explain why his new environment has become a fast fit.

This was early Friday afternoon, a little more than 12 hours after the Tampa Bay Lightning center recorded an assist in a shootout loss to the New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The point added to a streak of eight goals and nine assists in his past 16 games — further proof that the Bolts signing him to a five-year, $25-million deal in free agency last July has allowed them to become a bona fide contender in the Eastern Conference.

Filppula’s presence is proof of a franchise in motion.

The 29-year-old native of Vantaa, Finland, was inked as a second-line center following eight seasons with the Detroit Red Wings because former Tampa Bay staple Vinny Lecavalier was bought out last June and later signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Six months ago, Lecavalier’s legacy loomed large within the franchise that made him famous over 14 seasons. The thought of the Lightning skating without their former captain was both awkward and unsettling.

Time has passed since those uncertain summer days. Distance has been placed between raw, sentimental feelings and the current moment’s reality. Still, the move remains a landmark one.

Filppula, for his part, has done a solid job stepping beyond the shadow, beyond the unknowns, to carve out his own niche with a team he has helped make a threat.

"I feel like I’ve been able to play with really good players here," he said. "That always helps. The system has been fairly easy to get used to, too. I feel like I haven’t had to change too many things. That’s always nice as well."

The fact that Filppula feels comfortable being the player he became in Detroit speaks volumes about how the Lightning conduct business.

There’s a collegial feel to coach Jon Cooper’s leadership style, grounded in his time spent behind benches in the American Hockey League before Tampa Bay hired him to replace the fired Guy Boucher last March.

There are no acts. Players are encouraged to be who they are, with no intention to force an approach that’s damaging to the individual or to the group mission.

That’s a major reason why Filppula has had notable success this season.

Teammates notice how Cooper’s ethos of maximizing each possession complements Filppula’s desire to make an impact when he controls the puck.

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So far, this marriage of strategy and execution has paid dividends for a team that ranks eighth in the league in scoring with 2.82 goals per game.

Stats tell a story of a seasoned talent who has found quick comfort in his new home — this development made more important by Steven Stamkos’ absence from the lineup since sustaining a broken right tibia on Nov. 11.

Filppula is second on the team in points (37), goals (18) and power-play goals (four). He has been what Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager, envisioned when he charted a free-agency strategy to secure a familiar face last summer.

The current executive’s final season as a Red Wings center in 2005-06 overlapped with Filppula’s first four games there. Over time, a mutual respect was formed.

"Consistency is the word for him," Cooper said. "You know what you’re going to get from him. You’re going to get your 20 minutes. He’s going to play well against the top lines. He’s going to play well on the power play. He’s going to chip in offensively. He’s just a solid, all-around player. He kind of calms the game down."

The Lightning have benefitted from that calming influence often this winter. Marty St. Louis, as expected, has elevated his play and leadership as the franchise’s ninth captain.

But Tampa Bay has needed Filppula’s offensive outbursts to offset the void without Stamkos, a young superstar who figures to make the Lightning more dangerous once he returns later in the season.

Tampa Bay, despite its comfortable standing in the Eastern Conference, remains top-heavy with its scoring. St. Louis leads the team with 25 goals and 50 points. Stamkos, even with all his time away, remains third on the squad with 14 goals.

Where would the Lightning be without Filppula, whose comfort has contributed to his gains? Not in as favorable of a position.

A savvy free-agent signing — in this instance — became an insurance policy for a significant obstacle ahead. Stamkos’ injury meant more opportunity for Filppula to live his potential.

"The way he plays speaks for itself," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said of Filppula. "He’s so dangerous on the ice as soon as he gets the puck. Anything can happen. He finds those openings. He has been tremendous for us. He has been the No. 1 guy since Stammer went down."

For that reason, Filppula has earned a deserving spot on Team Finland for the Sochi Games next month.

This will be his second Olympics appearance, following a bronze-medal finish in Vancouver. Lightning defenseman Sami Salo, who will be Filppula’s teammate in Russia next month, calls his fellow countryman "relentless with or without the puck," a trait Tampa Bay enjoyed throughout the season’s first half.

Still, that stands as only part of Filppula’s growing profile in his new environment.

Is he relentless? Of course. But he also offers more: discipline, determination and the ability to lift others around him, a talent shared by the game’s best.

Not bad for a new guy on the block who has more to show.

"You never know what to expect when you come," Filppula said. "You don’t know how things are going to go. You don’t know the people. Everything has been going well. Guys have been really nice. It has been a great team to be a part of."

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