NASHVILLE. Tenn. — During his days in Detroit, Valtteri Filppula liked to play games of keep-away with his teammates during practice, holding the puck on his stick.
Judging by how Filppula does that to opponents during games, it’s a wonder those playful games ever ended with the type of puck-handling wizardry the 29-year-old has put on display through three preseason games, including Tuesday in Nashville.
As Filppula begins to accilimate himself to his new surroundings with the Lightning, that one attribute — his offensive skills with the puck — has stood out to those who now surround him.
“His puck-protecting skills are as high end as they can possibly be. It’s really hard to get the puck away from him,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “The puck is like a yo-yo on his stick, he just sticks it out there and pulls it back in.’’
In his first two preseason games since signing a five-year free-agent deal with Tampa Bay, Filppula looks every bit the part Tampa Bay signed him to be — and more. In those two games before Tuesday, Filppula produced four assists and had a successful shootout attempt.
In the offensive zone, Filppula has impressive puck control, poise and vision that can give opposing defenders fits, all while keeping his linemates on their skates to be ready at a moment’s notice.
“As you play more with him, you pick up on some of his tendencies, like you don’t have to be so close to him because he is so good with the puck and does a good job of holding it,’’ said right wing Teddy Purcell, who played camp scrimmages and the preseason opener on a line with Filppula.
“To support him, you have to get away from him, let him do his thing and get open because (the puck) can come at any time.’’
At the other end of the ice, Filppula displays an intuitive ability to be in the right position, an attribute that often can go unnoticed and be overshadowed by his abilities in the offensive zone.
But that part of Filppula’s game will make him an integral part of how Cooper handles his line rotations during games.
“He gives optimal effort every shift. He does what he is asked and you can’t ask for more as a coach,’’ Cooper said. “I think the big part, and everybody is looking at his offense and his offense is all well and good and we want that, but in the end we need a defensive player, somebody who is going play at both ends of the ice and on the penalty kill.
“If he delivers on that end, the rest is gravy for us.’’
Working on his game at both ends of the ice comes natural to Filppula, particularly paying attenting to the defensive zone, something the Finnish national team program teaches extensively. But it also comes from an understanding of what it takes to be a successful, all-around player.
“Scoring goals and playing offense is more fun, but defense sometimes is a lot of hard work, so I just feel if you can play (defense) quick you get to play offense more,’’ Filppula said.
“Plus, it’s never fun to get scored on, I hate that feeling, so that makes it more motivataion to play well defensively.’’
That commitment to play in defensive zone has stood out to more than just the coaching staff.
“There is no panic in his game, and as a guy that plays with him it brings your (panic) down as well. It really makes you think the game more, not just offensively but defensively. He’s always on the right side of the puck and reliable,’’ Purcell said.
Expectations must be tempered with the start of the regular season still a week away. But in the early going, Filppula has been impressive in showcasing the skills that made him one of the top targets on the free-agent market.
“He has confidence, exceptional puck skills and he can skate. ... You add all that up and you have a pretty darn good hockey player,’’ Cooper said. “He played in Detroit with Hall of Famers all over the place, so he’ s probably been overshadowed a little bit in that situation.
“I think he has come here to a new organization, a new coaching staff and he’s come in ready to impress. He’s done just that.’’