TAMPA — In NHL circles, a mythical place known as Red Wings University exists as a campus of higher learning, teaching winning habits and special skills.
If that’s the case, consider Valtteri Filppula as having aced the course load before bringing his game to Tampa Bay.
After spending the first eight years of his career with Detroit, including winning a Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008, Filppula joined the Lightning as a free agent this summer after signing a five-year, $25 million contract. While some thought the team overpaid at the time, the 28-year-old is paying big dividends so far this season.
Heading into tonight’s game against Pittsburgh, Filppula has three goals and an assist, and is plus-3.
He scored two goals in Thursday’s home-opening victory against Florida and his shootout goal in Chicago helped Tampa Bay earn its first win. He also has won 59 percent of his faceoffs, 46 of 78 draws, through four games.
While Filppula was overshadowed in Detroit through the years by big-name players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom, there is a growing appreciation for his talents in his new locale.
“I appreciate not only his game but his commitment to the game,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “His work ethic, he doesn’t cheat himself, he doesn’t cheat the game. He goes out there and gives you his best.
“The great thing is he is very knowledgeable about where guys should be and what guys should be doing. He asks questions. He just does everything you want in a player. ... So, he’s been a great add to our team, for sure.”
While Filppula has been lauded for his smart defensive zone play, his offensive skills stand out.
On his second goal against Florida on Thursday, he came through the neutral zone with the puck, used a subtle toe-drag to bring the puck back away from a defender’s stick and made a quick saucer pass to himself over the same defender’s stick. Filppula then dished a pass to Teddy Purcell before getting the puck back in the offensive zone and firing a backhand shot over Jacob Markstrom.
“On the bench after that goal, we were kind a looking at each other just thinking, ‘Did he really do that?’ ” center Steven Stamkos said. “It’s a shame when he was in Detroit with Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Lidstrom for all those years, because not a lot of people talked about him. But he is getting a chance to show what you can do and it’s impressive.’’
Sami Salo, a veteran defenseman who spent nine seasons with Vancouver before joining Tampa Bay, has played against Filppula and with him as part of the Finnish national team, including the 2010 Olympic team. He’d much rather watch Filppula do his magic than try to defend him.
“Guys who hang onto the puck and suck almost two players into them, they’re very tough to play against,” Salo said. “He’s very shifty. He moves around the ice very well and he makes shifty little plays, so he is very difficult to defend.”
Coming to a new organization for the first time in his career has been a seamless transition for Filppula. Showcasing his talents to his new team has certainly helped, not that he’s trying to do anything but play his game.
“It’s been a really easy team to come into that way, so that’s made me comfortable right from the beginning,” Filppula said. “I feel like I’m getting more comfortable as the games go on.
“We are winning. So, that’s the main thing, you want to win and everything is fun then.”
Not to mention, fun to watch.