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Central: Filppula Detroit's latest budding star

by Larry Wigge

Valtteri Filppula had 10 goals in 73 games with the Red Wings last season.
At first, the conversation I walked into sounded a little strange. But the more I think about it, it’s beginning to make more and more sense with each passing day.

"Once Phil learns that he needs to shoot more to make himself a more complete player, I think he’ll become a real threat," the coach said. "You know something, his skills remind me a little of Hank when he first came into the NHL."

My first thought when I heard this was that there were no players named Phil or Hank on the Detroit Red Wings. But when I realized Phil was short for Valtteri Filppula and Hank was Henrik Zetterberg, the conversation with coach Mike Babcock was his way of warning the rest of the NHL that Filppula just might be another of those prized all-world draft choices the Wings seem to find regularly.

The 23-year-old Vantaa, Finland native, who was picked in the third round (95th overall) in the 2002 Entry Draft, had 10 goals in 73 games with the Red Wings last season. He started slowly this season, with no goals in his first 10 games. But ...

"You’ve got to remember, he was supposed to spend all of last season in the American League ... he wasn’t supposed to get his feet wet at this level until this season," Babcock continued. "Now, I just think the sky’s the limit to his potential."

That night, Filppula started a stretch in which he scored six goals in five games to give him nine goals in 10 games and 13 for the season – and that includes two breathtaking penalty-shot goals.

And after that night’s game in St. Louis on Dec. 20, he moved up to the No. 1 line. With Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom out, Filppula, well, he simply was outstanding. The stretch included his first two-goal game in the NHL, Dec. 26 in St. Louis, and another two-goal game in Denver one night later.

"Was that 51 or 40?" Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom joked, referring to some of those Zetterberg-like skills that Filppula can bring to the Red Wings’ lineup. "The kid has size, speed ... and great skill."

Funny how the Red Wings find these nearly Finn-ished products with such great talent, isn’t it?

The story on this 23-year-old forward is typical. Filppula followed his older brother Lars, who currently plays in the Finnish Elite League, to the rink. He lived to play hockey. He had posters of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu in his room back home.

"My parents were the driving force," Valtteri said. "My brother and I got our athletic ability from my dad, who played Finnish baseball. And my mom ... she’s a teacher ... and she made sure both of us learned more than just one language, so we could succeed in the world. That has become very, very important to me."

Raimeri Filppula, Val’s father, currently works as an electrical engineer. His mom, Liisa, still is a kindergarten teacher.

Filppula wasn’t one of those too-small prospects the Red Wings dug up late in the 1998 and 1999 drafts, when they selected Pavel Datsyuk 171st in 1998 and Zetterberg 210th the following year. But there still were some anxious moments for Val.

"I had a pretty good year scoring in my final year in the Finnish Elite League (10 goals and 30 points, plus another 11 points in 12 playoff games for Jokerit Helsinki in 2004-05), but when I got to North America ... it was like the walls were closing in on me ... no room to move on the smaller ice surface over here," Filppula said. "I didn’t know if I’d make it here."

Make it he did, scoring 20 goals and 50 points in 74 games at Grand Rapids. Then he was recalled early last season because of a couple injuries, and he’s never looked back.

And just like that he joined the likes of Niklas Kronvall and Derek Meech on defense and Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Tomas Kopecky up front as young prospects ready to contribute to the Red Wings’ cause. But Filppula’s breakout year is just a small part of the formula that makes the Red Wings the best team in the NHL this season.

As the calendar turns to the 2008 part of his season, there are plenty of teams assessing where they are and what they need to do to be productive in the second half. Not in Detroit, though, where it seems the Wings seem to introduce two or three new players into the NHL each season – and the transition from prospect to productive NHL player seems seamless.

I’ve often wondered the age-old chicken-egg theory regarding hockey in Detroit. Is it coaching? The leadership inside the locker room? Drafting? Answer: It’s all of the above – and just a part of the Red Wings’ success that has produced three Stanley Cups in the last 10 years, led or tied for the most points in the regular season the last three seasons and four of the last six seasons, along with 10 divisional first-place finishes in the last 13 seasons.

That’s New England Patriots consistent success, and more.

"It all started long before I got here," said Babcock. "Scotty Bowman weeded out all of the players who didn’t fit. He basically said; ‘If you don’t love hockey, you’re gone.’ Then, he and (GM) Kenny Holland decided that they wanted their leaders to be a part of grooming the players in the Red Wings’ way of doing things, so they kept the right veterans around and used them to mentor the young guys in this room, answering their questions and giving them advice so that the transition to the NHL isn’t as difficult as it might be.

"I had a pretty good year scoring in my final year in the Finnish Elite League but when I got to North America ... it was like the walls were closing in on me ... no room to move on the smaller ice surface over here," Filppula said.

"But for me," Babcock added, "it all starts with good players – and that’s exactly what they give me to work with here. I’ve often joked that I feel like my right arm is (director of European scouting) Hakan Andersson, (assistant GM) Jimmy Nill, Kenny Holland and our scouting staff, because they not only draft good players, but they pick the right player to fit our system. It’s amazing how I’ll be thinking maybe we need a player to do this, and just like that he walks into our room.

"And it’s not just picking the right players. It’s knowing when they’re ready, not being put into situations that maybe they can’t handle just yet."

While some general managers say there is no cookie-cutter approach to building a team, the Red Wings disprove that argument – at the draft table, in development, behind the bench and in the dressing room. It’s hands-on all the way through the process in Detroit.

Other teams often ask veterans to watch and talk to youngsters and help them along, maybe bring a young prospect into their homes to help with the transition. But not to the extent that the Wings do.

Babcock said that when the team brought Dallas Drake in this summer as a free agent, they knew he was a leader, a former captain, a heart-and-soul veteran who plays and practices with passion and he’d fit right in. But the coach immediately told Drake that he wanted him to mentor Kopecky, a winger who needs to learn to play with passion and grit, just like Drake. They asked him to work with Kopecky. Answer any questions he has. Give him advice.

"It’s a hard transition from draft choice to prospect to professional and then to making – and staying – at the NHL level," explained Babcock. "There are no guarantees that come with these prospects, so you have to try to mold them the best way you can. I think Kenny Holland really hit on the right formula when he decided he was going to pick and choose to keep the veterans who could set an example for the young guys and show them the way. The right way."

Besides Drake working with Kopecky, Babcock said Datsyuk looks after Filppula, Kris Draper mentors Hudler, Chris Chelios helps Brett Lebda and Meech.

And what does Datsyuk said to Filppula?

"He tells me to be comfortable and confident. Enjoy myself," Filppula said of his time on the ice and off the ice watching movies like The Usual Suspects, the Die Hard series and James Bond action flicks, plus listening to his favorite Metallica songs, playing tennis or working on his golf game.

"And, oh yes," Filppula said, with a giant smile. "Pav always tells me to shoot more."

How can you argue with the success?


Around the Central Division – Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom celebrated his new two-year, $14.9 million contract Dec. 26 by scoring the game-winning goal against St. Louis. Lidstrom said GM Ken Holland approached him first about an extension in training camp and the two sides spoke a couple of times before they sat down and hammered out the deal just before Christmas. ... Going into this weekend’s game, Lidstrom had 34 points, which makes him and fellow defender Brian Rafalski, who had 33 points, the highest scoring defensive duo in the NHL with 67 points. That was 21 points more than the next pairs, which included Anaheim’s Chris Pronger and Mathieu Schneider, and Dallas’ Sergei Zubov and Matt Niskanen, with 46 points apiece. ... Strength up and down the roster? That’s the Wings, who won 4-1 at Minnesota Dec. 22 and came right back with 5-0 and 4-2 victories in St. Louis and Denver – all coming without leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg (back) and leading power-play goal-scorer Tomas Holmstrom (knee). ... Dominik Hasek backstopped the win in Denver, giving him a 7-0-1 record in his last eight games after starting the season 5-5-1. ... After losing three straight games from Nov. 11-17, the Red Wings went into the weekend 15-2-2 since. ... David Perron has climbed plenty of mountains this season with the St. Louis Blues after being the club’s first-round pick just last June (26th overall). He’s shown the skill to stick in St. Louis rather than go back to his junior team in Lewiston, Maine, and he’s followed the team’s schedule to get stronger. But with youth comes more learning. Earlier this season, Perron got in coach Andy Murray’s doghouse by reporting to the wrong rink for a mandatory practice in St. Louis. Then he got caught in traffic when he went home for Christmas and missed his flight out of Montreal and arrived in St. Louis too late for the first practice after the break. The infraction put him back in Murray’s doghouse at a time when Perron seemed to be progressing and was getting a chance to play on a line with Keith Tkachuk and Lee Stempniak. ... The Blues often have been asked about their depth on defense and a potential trade. Recently, they lost Bryce Salvador with a hip flexor injury and Barret Jackman had to be placed on injured reserve with concussion symptoms. Steve Wagner, who just might have been the team’s most consistent defenseman early this season after barging his way onto the roster in training camp, was recalled from Peoria (AHL). ... More injuries. Chicago still mustered plenty of offense in a 5-2 victory over Nashville Dec. 26, even after the team placed Martin Havlat (groin), Dave Bolland (broken finger), and Ben Eager (mild concussion) on IR. It was Chicago’s fourth win in a row; they haven’t won five straight since 1999. ... Winger Patrick Sharp is making a bid for Hawks MVP after he scored his 19th goal of the season –seventh shorthanded – in that triumph over the Predators to put him just one goal shy of his career-high, set last season. Sharp has taken off offensively since joining the line with rookie stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in late November. ... Nikolai Khabibulin had 25 wins and was inconsistent last season. This season, he’s 15-10-2 and has been consistent in goal every night of late. ... The suck-it-up-amidst-injuries-and-illness-to-win theme in the Central Division continued in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets learned less than two hours before their Dec. 26 contest that they would be without Rick Nash. That meant they would be playing without Nash (throat inflammation), Michael Peca (headaches) and Manny Malhotra (knee). But coach Ken Hitchcock’s team gutted it out and limited Atlanta to just 21 shots in a 2-0 victory for Pascal Leclaire’s League-leading seventh shutout of the season. It was his first win in more than a month. ... Defenseman Ron Hainsey has returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch against Calgary Dec. 18 to being much more involved in the offense. His set-up pass and follow-up screen in front of the net were key in Danny Fritsche’s game-winning goal against the Thrashers. One night later, Hainsey had two assists at Nashville. ... Predators coach Barry Trotz keeps preaching that no matter who is in the Nashville lineup that the team has to return to the "culture" the Preds were built on, which is hard work and passion. Trotz earned his 300th NHL coaching win with a 4-3 triumph against Columbus Dec. 27. It was the 12th straight over the Jackets for Trotz and the Predators.

... With key defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter out with injuries, first-year defender Ville Koistinen made his first major contribution to the Predators by making his first NHL goal the game-winner with just 4:37 remaining, and added two assists in the victory over Columbus. Koistinen, 25, signed as a free agent in May 2006. Nashville officials say he reminds them of a younger version of Kimmo Timonen – a smallish, free-agent defenseman who arrived in the NHL in his mid-20s. Now, if he can produce points and play with the consistency of Timonen, then the Preds really have themselves a gem since the team has been looking for someone, anyone, to help ignite the offense from the defensive end of the ice since Timonen’s departure to Philadelphia. Marek Zidlicky also had three points from the defense for Nashville in the game. ... Chris Mason was the winner in goal for the Preds, who still are trying to find the kind of consistency they had in the nets with Tomas Vokoun and Mason the past couple of seasons. One night earlier, in their loss in Chicago, Trotz had to replace Dan Ellis after he surrendered two goals on three shots; Mason wasn’t much better as the Hawks scored five times on just 22 shots. It was the sixth time this season Nashville has changed goaltenders in the course of a game.

The week ahead – The Blues and Red Wings split the first two contests in a three-game, nine-day stretch of meetings, with the Blues winning the first tilt 3-2 Dec. 20 and being blanked 5-0 by Chris Osgood Dec. 26. Valtteri Filppula had three goals in those last two contests to even the season series at two wins apiece. ... The Predators still are trying to get revenge on the San Jose Sharks following first-round five-game playoff eliminations each of the last two seasons, plus a 3-0 loss at San Jose Oct. 20. The two teams play again Dec. 29.


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