Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning signs center Valtteri Filppula

Valtteri Filppula took a few seconds to consider the query and then decided he did not have an answer.

"A good question," he said when asked why his production fell so sharply last season. "I don't know. I really don't have a good explanation for you."

One thing for sure, he said, "going into next season, I feel confident. You always want to improve your game, and that's the goal for next season as well."

The Lightning can only hope that is the case. On Friday, the first day of free agency, it signed Filppula to a five-year, $25 million deal to take the No. 2 center spot opened by the buyout of Vinny Lecavalier's contract.

Considering Lecavalier left with franchise records of 1,038 games and 383 goals, it is a huge hole to fill. It appears even larger considering Filppula struggled for the Red Wings last season with just nine goals and 17 points in 41 games.

But Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said Filppula, 29, was his main free agent target and a better picture of what the 6-foot, 195-pound Finn can do is the 66 points (23 goals, 43 assists) he had in 2011-12.

"It was a funny year, coming out of the lockout, short season," Yzerman said of last season. "I believe, generally, things average themselves out over the course of an 82-game season, so I'm not worried about the production from (last) year. His work ethic, his commitment to fitness is at an extremely high level. He works hard, knows his role. We're getting a real professional here."

Tampa Bay also signed No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Drouin to a three-year entry-level deal that pays $925,000 a season with the opportunity for another $2.3 million in annual performance bonuses.

It added organizational depth by signing right wing Geoff Walker, who had five goals, 20 points and 55 penalty minutes in 51 games last season for AHL Lake Erie, to a one-year, two-way contract.

But signing Filppula created the biggest stir because of whom he is replacing — "I hope I can be that guy," he said of stepping in for Lecavalier — and questions about a disappointing 2013.

Filppula, with 100 goals and 251 points in 483 games in eight seasons with the Red Wings, declined to use injuries as an excuse, but they played a part.

He sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee while playing in Finland during the lockout. It didn't require surgery but kept him off skates for two months until one week before Detroit's training camp. Knee pain caused him to miss even more practice time.

A shoulder injury sidelined him for seven games in February and March.

"It was definitely a rough start, definitely not the start I wanted," said Filppula, who assured by phone from his home in Espoo, Finland, the knee is healed. "Never at the start of the season do you want to have an injury. But during the end, even though the stats never really came, I felt I was playing better."

He won 55.4 percent of his faceoffs, and his 17:46 of average ice time was fourth among Red Wings forwards. He had two goals and six points in 14 playoff games, and scored the winner in a 3-2 decision in Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinal against the Ducks.

"He's just a well-rounded player," said Yzerman, who played four games as Filppula's Red Wings teammate in 2005-06, then watched him for four years as a team vice president. "We didn't just sign him for point production. Our team can score goals. I like the rest of his game. He's good defensively, good on faceoffs and a good skater. He really fits what we're trying to do here."

"You want to be on a team that has a good chance to win," said Filppula, who picked the brain of fellow Finn and new Lightning teammate Sami Salo about Tampa Bay. "I feel like we have that team."

Filppula's signing is Tampa Bay's last this year in free agency, Yzerman said, adding he expects the one or two remaining forward spots on the roster to be filled from within the organization.

As for potential trades, "We're not out there actively pursuing (them)," he said, "but we will certainly look at any option that makes us a better team."

Consider Filppula, the Lightning's new No. 2 center, option No. 1.

PROSPECTS CAMP: The camp, featuring 31 players, including Drouin, opens at 11:30 a.m. today and runs through Wednesday at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. It is free and open to the public. A schedule and roster is at tampabaylightning.com.

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