There is no denying that the Tampa Bay Lightning have improved dramatically in the first quarter of the 2013-2014 season. At the time of this writing, the Lightning are 2nd in the Atlantic Division with a 14-8 record through 22 games. Tampa Bay is 7-3 in ten games against the Western Conference. They are one of the only teams in the Eastern Conference which have had any success against their Western Conference counter parts. There are many reasons for the Lightning's success but one player sticks out in particular. That player is newcomer Valtteri Filppula. He could very well be the best player in a bolts jersey this season.
The 29 year old center man from Finland had spent eight years with the Detroit Red Wings before signing a contract as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Filppula's contract is worth $25 million dollars over five years. This is probably slightly higher than his actual value. He was signed the first day of free agency and was slated to be the number two center behind Steven Stamkos. He will fill the immense void that was created when Vincent Lecavalier left for free agency. Lecavalier was the Lightning's captain and he left Tampa Bay with franchise records in both games played and total goals. Signing Filppula to replace Lecavalier shows us just how highly the Lightning and general manager Steve Yzerman think of him. Last season was not the best for Valtteri though, he followed up his 66 points 2011-2012 campaign with just 17 points through the shortened 2012-2013 season. He did suffer from a shoulder injury which nagged him for a couple months though.
Filppula is a great and well-rounded player. He left Detroit with an average of almost 18 minutes in ice time per game which was the fourth highest ice time total among forwards for the Red Wings. Filppula won 55.4% of his face-offs during his time in Detroit which speaks to his compete level. He has good legs and works hard on defense which makes him an even more valuable asset for the Lightning. Filppula can also spend time on the penalty kill and is a highly versatile and skilled forward. Tampa Bay has struggled trying to find consistency on their own side of the ice and Filppula's strength as a two way player has been welcomed in this organization. He is a constant professional and he has made a big impact for the Lightning during the first quarter of the 2013-2014 season.
Filppula has made his name known in Florida during the short amount of time which he has spent with the Lightning. Since Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg on November 11th, Valtteri has been asked to play on the top line as the number one center. He is in the middle of a line which contains captain Martin St. Louis and Alex Killorn. Stamkos going down has opened up an opportunity for Filppula to become the best player on the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is certainly trying to make the most of his opportunities. He has nine goals and seven assists to total 16 points this season. He is on the ice for an average of 19 minutes and 32 seconds per game which ranks him right behind Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. He is also clocking in over three minutes of power play ice time on average per game. Both of these totals are career highs for Filppula if he can keep them up. Valtteri 's teammates are taking notice of his play too and they all seem to appreciate that he is a part of their team. Even though he played in Detroit for his entire career prior to coming to Tampa Bay, Filppula is fitting in very well with his team. Stamkos and St. Louis have both had nothing but positive things to say about the Finnish center. His defensive play has been solid as well. He has already blocked eight shots this season which puts him on track for about 32 by the end of the year. That would also be another career high for Filppula. He has the highest shooting percentage during five on five play which he has ever had in his career during the first quarter of this season. He is winning almost 53% of his face-offs this season and he is going against the oppositions best centers the majority of the time. The quality of competition he is facing is the highest it has ever been in his career. He is facing the best offensive players from opposing teams and that fact is validated by his current 3.6 HARO QOC rating. The most impressive fact about his production this year has been that he has been doing it with the worst supporting cast he has ever had in his career.
The supporting cast for Filppula is rated at a 2.0 overall and to put that in perspective, the best team which he ever played for had a 24.9 rating. He is also spending more time in the neutral zone than ever before, almost 41% of his ice time is spent in the neutral zone. He is spending just 26.7% of his ice time in the offensive zone which is lower than any year he had when playing with the Red Wings. As a result, Filppula is spending a career high in ice time in his own zone, clocking in at 32.3%. Martin St. Louis on the other hand is actually playing with the best Tampa Bay Lightning team he has played with in his last seven seasons with this organization. The overall quality of competition for St. Louis is the second lowest he has faced in that same time span and the offensive skills of the opposition are about on average with his career. St. Louis' time in each zone is about on average with his career stats, spending about 34.8% of his total ice time in the offensive zone which is 8.1% more than Filppula. Stamkos is averaging 33.1% of his ice time in the offensive zone. The facts are that Filppula is doing more with less and his elite counterparts are playing with a better team than average along with more time in the offensive zone. This is not a knock on the Lightning though, they are a great franchise with an excellent future. They play a different style of hockey and quite frankly Filppula just played on some incredible Detroit teams with a vast number of future hall of fame players.
Although Filppula is playing at a high level and contributing heavily to the Lightning's cause this season, he is probably not the best player on the team. Filppula takes a backseat to Martin St. Louis and the play of goaltender Ben Bishop. You can put Steven Stamkos in front of him as well when he gets back into the lineup. This is nothing new to Filppula though, he didn't receive nearly the praise that he deserved when he was in Detroit. Fortunately for him there are fewer big names in Tampa Bay and he is playing some of the best hockey of his career. His game is more balanced than we have seen in recent years and he is having a great year despite facing tougher competition and playing on a worse team than he ever did during his time in Detroit. Even though his numbers might just be average, looking deeply into his play shows just how well he is executing and that he is living up to his $5 million per year deal. Filppula fits in well with the Lightning and he could have a career season. Filppula may not be the best player on his team but he is a key part of the Lightning's organization which could possibly compete for the Stanley Cup this season.