TAMPA — Six months after targeting Valtteri Filppula in free agency, the Tampa Bay Lightning are convinced they’ve scored a bull’s-eye.
And with the team headed to Philadelphia for today’s matinee matchup against Vinny Lecavalier and the Flyers, Tampa Bay’s 29-year-old center has exceeded expectations as a younger, cheaper replacement for the former Lightning captain.
“Val’s been exceptional,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He grew as a player during his years in Detroit, and now we’re reaping the benefits.’’
Given more ice time after Steven Stamkos’ fractured tibia, Filppula has responded with more production.
He enters Saturday’s game second on the team to Marty St. Louis in goals (17) and points (34) and has 14 points in his past 12 games — while raising the level of play for linemates Alex Killorn and Teddy Purcell.
“He’s obviously a pretty easy guy to play with,’’ said Killorn, who is driving to the net at every opportunity to give Filppula more room to showcase his stellar stick-handling skills. “Val’s a playmaker who can also shoot the puck very well. He’s so patient with the puck on his stick, and I think our line has developed some nice chemistry.’’
In his eight years with the Red Wings, Filppula learned patience while playing with a veteran roster teeming with skilled forwards. His best season came in 2011-12, when he set career highs with 23 goals and 66 points while averaging 18:15 of ice time.
Now, he’s averaging almost 20 minutes and has emerged as a fixture on Tampa Bay’s power play, scoring four goals when the Lightning has a manpower advantage.
“When Steve got hurt, I didn’t change my game,’’ he said. “The difference is, I’m getting more time on the power play. I think we’ve been playing well since his injury and our line is getting better all the time.’’
While a fracture in his lower back has limited Lecavalier to 17 points in 31 games, Filppula continues to provide the Lightning with a solid return on their five-year, $25-million investment.
In Detroit, under the watchful eye of Red Wings executive Steve Yzerman, Filppula learned the importance of winning faceoffs and being responsible in the defensive zone.
When Filppula became available last summer, Yzerman pounced as general manager of the Lightning, wrapping up the two-time member of Finland’s Olympic team to a long-term deal on the first day clubs could sign free agents.
One of the most impressive aspects of Filppula’s game is his determination to maintain puck possession.
Cooper’s tolerance for mistakes is tested whenever a Lightning player makes a sloppy pass that leads to a turnover, but Filppula prides himself on minimizing giveaways. Thanks to his lengthy apprenticeship with the Red Wings, Filppula is determined to make smart decisions with the puck.
“Absolutely, we miss him,’’ Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “You always remember good players when they move on.’’
A third-round pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Filppula has made a smooth transition from the Motor City to the Sunshine State.
“I’m happy,’’ he said. “It’s been a great start for me here in Tampa. We’ve been playing well as a team — and that’s the main thing. But I’ve been happy with my decision as well.’’
Although Filppula had played only 17 games with the Lightning when Stamkos was carted off the ice in Boston on Nov. 11, Cooper knew immediately his new center would have to meet an impending challenge.
“He was a young kid in Detroit, playing behind guys like (Henrik) Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk,’’ Cooper said. “Val just had to wait his turn. Here in Tampa, he’s kind of taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, since Stammer went down. He knows his role and he knows he’s going to be counted on to play against top lines and be on our power play. Looking back, he’s done nothing to disappoint us.’’