TAMPA — Not many new faces dot the roster for the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into the opening of training camp on Wednesday.
But one will be the center of attention.
Free-agent acquisition Valtteri Filppula landed with Tampa Bay on the opening day of free agency, signing a five-year, $25 million contract after spending eight seasons in the Detroit Red Wings organization, the past seven in the NHL.
After Tampa Bay bought out the remaining seven years on franchise icon Vinny Lecavalier’s contract in late June, the Lightning needed to fill the void at second-line center. Filppula was the primary target of general manager Steve Yzerman, who knew Filppula well from Yzerman’s days as an executive with the Red Wings.
Filppula, who showed up in Tampa this week to begin informal skates with his new teammates, is ready to start the next chapter of his career.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Filppula said. “Hopefully it will be a good season for us, and I’m looking forward to it.’’
Before arriving in Tampa, Filppula made a stop in Detroit for one last skate at Joe Louis Arena with his former teammates. It wasn’t exactly planned as a way to close the chapter on his Red Wings days, but it played out that way as he parted ways with familiar faces in familiar places before embarking on his new destination.
“I turned the page pretty quick after I signed to play here, but I still have a place there, and it was a good place to skate,” said Filppula, 29.
“It wasn’t really that hard, to be honest. I have a lot of good friends, so it was a lot of fun (to go back). I was there for a long time, so in that way it was tough to leave. But I’m more so excited about the upcoming season.”
Filppula signed with Tampa Bay on July 5, eight days after Lecavalier’s buyout. The natural inclination, then, is to view Filppula as the replacement for Lecavalier.
But Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he will go into training camp with no preconceived notions regarding Filppula’s role or what line he will play on when the season opens Oct. 3. Cooper has never seen Filppula play in person and knows the player only from tape, so he will see how things play out in training camp and during the preseason.
Lecavalier, the No. 1 overall pick by the Lightning in 1998, has 383 goals and 491 assists in 1,037 career games. Filppula, also a left-handed shot, has 100 goals and 151 assists in 483 career games.
“I think everybody in our organization 100 percent knows that it is not even comparable,’’ Cooper said of comparing Filppula with Lecavalier. “But because they play the same position, they shoot the same hand, of course they are going to be compared. I just think that’s unfair to put that on Val, because Vinny has been doing it in this league for 15 years at a high level. So, that’s an unfair comparison.’’
Cooper is certainly savvy enough to know Filppula will be a welcome addition to the roster.
“I think he is coming right into his prime, and he’s spent pretty much his entire professional career being educated at a Grade-A organization,’’ Cooper said. “And he has won. He comes from a winning organization, so any time you can take players out of that environment while you are trying to create that in your organization, it will help us.’’
Filppula also wants to put last season behind him.
In 2011-12, Filppula registered career highs with 23 goals, 43 assists and 66 points. Last season, however, he scored just nine goals and 17 points in 41 games.
A knee sprain suffered while playing in Finland during the lockout kept him off the ice for six weeks. He recovered around the time the NHL lockout was resolved, but he was not in playing shape. Filppula also was slowed by a shoulder injury that forced him to miss seven games shortly into the season. Then, in the playoffs, Filppula suffered a high ankle sprain in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal that kept him from training for a short time in the offseason.
The ankle is at full strength now, and he’s hoping to put those injury issues behind him.
“It was just one of those seasons that I had some issues,’’ Filppula said. “But hopefully it’s going to be a season that I can stay healthy.”