Valtteri Filppula isn’t the type who yells and screams in the locker room after a bad period, nor is he willing to pin blame on any of his teammates.
“I’m not the loudest guy in the room,” he said. “I’m trying to play the right way.”
It is that aspect, playing the right way, that led the New York Islanders to sign the 34-year-old center to a one-year contract July 1. Filppula was the type of player general manager Lou Lamoriello believed the Islanders needed after they failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season in 2017-18 and allowed the most goals in the NHL (293).
The Islanders also signed forward Leo Komarov, a similar, steady player, to a four-year contract July 1.
The signings may have appeared underwhelming, especially after center John Tavares left as an unrestricted free agent to sign a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on the same day, but Filppula and Komarov have proven their worth in New York.
“Val’s always been a good player,” Komarov said. “It’s more maybe people thought he’s not good enough or whatever, but I don’t see that. He almost has 1,000 games in this league. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a pro.”
The longtime friends are linemates this season and have helped coach Barry Trotz turn New York (29-15-5) into arguably the NHL’s biggest surprise in 2018-19. The Islanders lead the Metropolitan Division with 63 points, three more than the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, heading into their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nassau Coliseum on Friday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, MSG+, SUN, NHL.TV).
Filppula, a native of Vantaa, Finland, has 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) and three game-winning goals in 47 games. Komarov, from Narva, Estonia, has 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) in 49 games. The two have trained together in recent offseasons and have been essential on the penalty kill, which recently killed off 15 straight power plays over six games before allowing two power-play goals in a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 22.
“The teams I’ve been on when I was younger, there were guys a little bit older who worked hard and put in [effort] every day,” Komarov said. “They lead by example; it’s not maybe goal-scoring wise, just work hard and every guy trying to dig in. The effort on this team is good. Guys are smiling coming to the rink. I think everyone here is doing a really good job, and obviously Lou is one of the bigger guys who brought it in and he knows how to win.”
Filppula arrived in New York with an impressive resume; he helped the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 2008 and return to the Final the following season. In 2015, he played a key role in the Lightning’s run to the Final. Filppula has 484 points (179 goals, 305 assists) in 923 regular-season games and 82 points (25 goals, 57 assists) in 158 playoff games with the Red Wings, Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers.
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who coached Filppula in Detroit, wished the Red Wings found a way to re-sign him after the 2012-13 season.
“In the end, we probably should have kept him there for the whole time,” Babcock said of Filppula, who had 100 goals and 251 points in 483 games with Detroit. “Sometimes you make decisions that work out better for the player than they did for the team. I think [Filppula] is a very good person, a very good player for a long time.
“He’s always been good defensively, but now he’s an important player on a good team. Penalty-killer, he’s good without the puck. Again, a really good person who makes his teammates better.”
Red Wings defenseman and former teammate Niklas Kronwall said he’s not surprised by the impact Filppula has made in New York.
“Of course, the experts out there, they get paid to have an opinion and they’re entitled to that,” Kronwall said. “But I think everyone that’s played the game, and especially guys that have with him, know how much he means to the team because of the little things he does out there.
“I wish he’d still be with us. I always thought he was an extremely effective player.”
Filppula played parts of four seasons with the Lightning, which was highlighted by the trip to the Final in 2015. After scoring 48 points (12 goals, 36 assists) during the regular season, Filppula had four goals and 10 assists in 26 playoff games.
“He’s like the toolbox; you just go in there and he can do a bunch of different things for you,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “His time in Detroit, he was trained well. I think the one guy he really suited his game after was [Pavel] Datsyuk. Nobody can be Datsyuk, but he does have a lot of the same qualities. A class individual. We wouldn’t have gone to the Final without what he contributed to our team.”
How far the Islanders can go on remains to be seen, but Filppula’s contributions are evident to his current coach.
“I coached against him for a long time in different situations, and I probably didn’t have the appreciation of what he does, all the little things,” Trotz said. “But you see him day in and day out, and I get it. I get it totally. He’s come in and done exactly what Lou wanted. He’s been a big part of any success that we have. I think he’ll be a big part of any success we have going forward.”
Though some may be surprised by the success of the Islanders this season, Filppula, who knows plenty about playing for a winning team, is not.
“I think on this team, we have a lot of belief [in] how we can do,” he said. “I think the League now is so even that if you play a good game and another team’s a little bit off, you have a good chance of winning. The more you can be on top of your game, you’re going to have a good chance to win against anybody.”