TAMPA - During the frenzied early hours of NHL free agency as more than 30 players signed new contracts, the Tampa Bay Lightning remained relatively quiet.
But by mid-afternoon Friday, general manager Steve Yzerman made plenty of noise in the marketplace by signing former Detroit Red Wings’ center Valtteri Filppula to a five-year contract worth $25 million, filling the area of need Yzerman most wanted to address.
Filppula, whom Yzerman saw up close during his days with Detroit, slots into the second-line center role vacated when long-time Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier was bought out on June 27.
“Coming from the Detroit organization, we know what he can do, his strengths, where he fits on our team, the character and the work ethic,’’ Yzerman said. “Everything about him is what we are trying to do here, his work ethic, his attitude, we like his two-way game and I think he’ll really help us in that department. And most of all he fills a need for us down the middle.’’
Tampa Bay also announced the signing of winger Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in last week’s NHL draft, to a three-year entry level contract as well as the addition of minor league forward Geoff Walker to a one-year, two-way contract.
During his seven seasons with the Red Wings, Filppula played in all situations while playing all three forward positions are various times. He helped lead Detroit to a Stanley Cup championship in 2008 and had 100 goals and 251 points in 483 games.
His best season came in 2011-12 when he 23 goals and 66 points before a knee sprain suffered while playing in Finland during the lockout this year slowed him down this season with just nine goals and 17 points in 41 games.
Before choosing Tampa Bay among the other oppportunities he had in the free agent market, getting the chance to speak to Yzerman as well as fellow Finnish native Sami Salo proved beneficial.
“I spoke with Yzerman and I’ve known him from Detroit times, and I spoke to Sami Salo too and they have a really interesting, young kind of team that is going to be a good place for me,’’ Filppula said from Finland on Friday. “Those were sort of the main things that made me want to come to Tampa.’’
Though Filppula comes to the Lightning as the likely second-line center, the 6-foot, 195-pound native of Vantaa, Finland, is not coming in to be the replacement for Lecavalier, who spent 14 seasons with Tampa Bay after being the first overall pick in 1998. Lecavalier had the final seven years on his contract bought out by the Lightning, which cleared his $7.7 million cap hit, and has since signed with Philadelphia.
Filppula plays the same position as Lecavalier, but plays a different game.
“He’s not coming in here as Vinny Lecavalier’s replacement, he’s coming in as a player that can a lot of little things for us, is a versatile guy,’’ Yzerman said. “We’re trying to establish an identity with our team and he is part of that new identity on this team. So he is not a replacement for Vinny Lecavalier, they are both centers but they are very different players.’’
While with the Red Wings, Filppula played somewhat in the shadow of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, where some believe his offensive numbers were stifled to a certain point.
“There is a lot of thought giving him more offensive minutes that he might be able to produce at a higher rate,’’ NHL Network analyst and former Calgary general manager Craig Button said. “He’s a very good skater, very versatile and he’s a guy that can kill penalties, and generate offensive chances with his speed.’’
Filppula pays attention to the other end of the ice, as well.
“I think playing center I can find my wingers well and that way be able to create some chances, and I’ll do my best on defense, for sure, and that’s one aspect of my game that I take serious, to make sure I play well in both ends,’’ he said.
Filling the second line center was Yzerman’s primary goal in the free agent market. With that task now complete, he’ll go about looking at other ways to try to improve his team heading toward the start of training camp in September.
“Don’t look for us to really do anything in free agency right now,’’ Yzerman said. “We want to keep spots open for the young guys. So now all we can do is explore around the league opportunities that might make us better, but you have to come up with an idea and come up with a (trade) partner.’’
One of those young players fighting for a chance to make the team figures to be Drouin, who became the first player from this year’s draft to sign an entry-level contract.
“Obviously we think extremely highly of him,’’ Yzerman said of Drouin. “To get (the contract) done and put to rest is good for Jonathan and good for us. He’s going to be an important part of our future and he’ll get an opportunity to make our team, and the contract the way it is structured is good for both parties.’’