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Filppula charting path toward the NHL

His coaches and teammates have taken to calling him Flip. And if you’ve seen the contorted positions opposing goaltenders are forced into when facing him on a breakaway, you know why Grand Rapids Griffins winger Valtteri Filppula has earned the nickname – as well as the attention and respect of those around him.

His name is one that Detroit Red Wings fans should become very familiar with in years to come. Along with rising stars such as Jimmy Howard, Jiri Hudler, Brett Lebda and Kyle Quincey, Filppula promises to be a mainstay of the next generation of talent emerging from the Red Wings’ farm system.

“Here’s another case where Detroit took a third-round pick and turned it into a guy [about whom] everybody scratches their heads and wonders why he wasn’t a first-round pick,” says Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. “He’s a guy they identified years ago in the draft, and he’s one of those diamonds in the rough they were able to find in the middle rounds.”

Filppula was discovered by Red Wings scouts in his native Finland, where he quickly ascended in the junior ranks with the country’s premier team, Jokerit Helsinki. Detroit selected him as the 95th player overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Just over a year later, the left winger made his professional debut at the age of 19 in Finland.

After signing a contract with the Wings in August, Filppula experienced his first NHL training camp under new coach Mike Babcock. He was assigned to the Griffins just before the start of the season in the AHL, where the 21-year-old prospect faced a comprehensive first-year transition to life as a pro hockey player in the United States.

“I don’t think his assignment to us impacted how he played,” McNamara says. “Being in a new culture, and adapting to and understanding what hockey’s like here in North America and what it’s like to live on your own in a different country – as he’s become acclimated to the style of play over here, he’s shown a significant amount of improvement in a short period of time and he’s back to where he was in training camp.

“He’s only going to get better and he’s going to play in the NHL for a long time.”

The transition for Filppula was made easier by a friendly welcoming committee in Grand Rapids.

“All the guys were really nice to me when I came here and it’s been really easy to start playing with them,” says Filppula. “It’s a great team, we have a good spirit, and I really like it.”

Griffins coach Greg Ireland noticed significant qualities he liked in Filppula from the start – away from the practice rink.

“What really struck us were a couple of things off the ice – how mature he was, what a good person he was, and that he’s just a good student of the game,” offers Ireland. “The thing with Val is he’s here to play hockey, and I think that’s an important factor. He just lives to play, and everything he does each day is dedicated to getting better as a player.”

The decision to have Filppula play full-time at the AHL level during the 2005-06 season was made in large part to give the young forward as much experience with as much ice time as possible. Despite the fact that players of comparable talent are already skating with their parent clubs, Detroit management believed playing consistently in Grand Rapids was critical to Filppula’s overall development.

“Some guys get the opportunity to go to the NHL right away, some guys need a little time in the minor leagues,” McNamara says. “I think it was important for the Red Wings to have him playing in all situations every night, as opposed to being in Detroit and maybe playing four minutes a night on the fourth line.”

Growing pains were definitely part of the process in the early-going for Filppula. Trying to find chemistry with his new teammates proved difficult out of the gate, as he totaled just five points in October over nine games.

“Early on, I thought he was holding the puck too long and trying to make too many plays at the offensive blue line, and he was turning it over,” says Ireland. “I think that’s a result of playing on bigger ice in Europe. It’s more of a puck-possession game there, and you get the puck and hold it until you can get it to the net and score.”

But November saw the young sniper torch the opposition, as Filppula began centering a stalwart line featuring Griffins veterans Darryl Bootland and Tomas Kopecky. His offensive output more than tripled as a result, with six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in just 12 games.

“There are a couple of things I think he’s advanced in,” Ireland continues. “He’s learned that if he gives the puck to his teammates, he’ll get it back. And he’s learned to put pucks in behind defensemen and go in on the forecheck and retrieve it.”

“He’s a strong skater,” praises McNamara. “On the boards, I’ve seen him beat two guys out of the corner with the puck in the offensive zone. He’s very strong on the puck, he takes it to the net, and he’s not afraid of traffic.”

Despite the explosion in his production and high praise from coaches and management, Filppula remains grounded and committed to rounding out his game, which bodes well for his future success.

“There are a lot of things I can improve on,” Filppula readily admits. “My shot, for example. I’ve got to do things faster here. In Finland, you have a little bit more time to think about what you’re doing, and here you’ve got to try to do things faster. In every aspect of the game, I have things to improve.”

Filppula has also shown a propensity for delivering in the clutch. Over an eight-day span, as the fifth and final skater in two shootouts, Filppula stung veteran Manitoba Moose goaltender Wade Flaherty for a pair of game-clinching strikes.

“He’s a guy that wants the puck on his stick when the game’s on the line, whether it’s in a shootout or overtime or the last minute,” says Ireland. “He wants to be on the ice when you’re up or down a goal in the last minute of a period. He wants to be a big-game guy and, more importantly, he wants to be a good team player.”