If one key theme has come out of this offseason for the Red Wings, it has been the concern that they are a middle-heavy team that lacks the true top depth they need to overcome the shortcomings that held them to second round exits for each of the last two season. Of the players being called upon to carry more of the point-producing load for the team in the upcoming season, Valtteri Filppula is among the highest-paid.
Entering year four of a five-year deal, Filppula takes up $3 million in cap space against his real-world $3.5 million salary. In cap dollars, he is the fourth-highest compensated Red Wings forward. Unfortunately, last season he produced only the sixth-highest amount of points for forwards, being outscored by both Danny Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi who are below him on the salary pay scale. The player many expected to become a perennial 50-point producer has struggled through injury and inconsistency for the last two years and, despite solid playoff production from the 2nd or 3rd-line center, he has failed to score more than 40 points in a season.
Fortunately, last night might have been a glimpse of exactly what's needed to turn him from a solid two-way player with speed and offensive upside into a true top-six point producer. So far throughout the preseason, Filppula has moved from his usual center position to the wing in favor of playing on Henrik Zetterberg's . All indications (i.e. 1 goal and 2 assists so far in the Red & White Scrimmage and last night's game) are that the move is exactly what Filppula needed.
Now, RedWings.com's Bill Roose has quotes from Filppula that indicate the move may become permanent.
for Filppula, he understands that there’s an opportunity this season to product more points from a forward position by playing up with Zetterberg and Franzen.
"I think we have a good line and that we should be able to play real well, and do a lot of good things out there," said Filppula, who had a goal in Thursday’s 4-3 shootout win over Philadelphia. "So hopefully, as the preseason goes on and into the season, we can be a good line for us."
Used greatly as a third line center in the past, Filppula sees great potential in playing with Zetterberg, who has averaged 29 goals a season, and Franzen, who is known for scoring goals in bunches.
"Playing with those guys, I expect a lot of myself if I get to play there," Filppula said. "I definitely should have a lot of opportunities to get to play a lot. And when you play more you expect more of yourself, too. If that’s going to be our line, I’d hope that I would do well."
While Filppula stops short of sharing any specific goals he's setting for points totals, he does indicate that he expects to do better this season.
The good news as far as what this does for the Wings is that it allows them to better utilize players' strengths across the top three lines and alleviates a bit of the bottleneck that Detroit suffers as far as skilled centers (technically, the line of Filppula-Zetterberg-Franzen consists of three people who can all play the position at a high level).
Filppula playing on Zetterberg's wing gives him the freedom to utilize his speed to attack overzealous defensemen in the Red Wings' zone, to help stretch out the transition game, and to use his vision to set up two incredibly competent finishers in the offensive zone. While this does take away a measure of his overall defensive responsibility, his freedom to move around the zone and to sneak into passing lanes (both offensively and defensively) all while having Henrik Zetterberg to help cover him should make that line a nightmare to play against for the opposition.
What's better is that the split between the Red and White squads further indicates that this is the line which will benefit from playing in front of the Nicklas Lidstrom-Ian White pairing. When considering this as a five-man unit, they should do an incredible job moving the puck and driving the play.
Lest we worry about this move putting all of the Wings' eggs in one basket, we still have Pavel Datsyuk to consider. Datsyuk has been like this for years, but last season was perhaps the most strongly indicative season of his career at just how much better he can make his linemates. When paired with a healthy Danny Cleary, who put up a career-high in goals last season, this line has space to play with any one of three or more additional wingers who have yet-unrealized offensive opportunities: Jiri Hudler, Todd Bertuzzi, or Patrick Eaves.
If preseason talent splits remain as they did, this will give Datsyuk, Cleary, and their lucky mystery winger the ability to play a majority of their shifts in front of Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall. I actually don't think this five-man unit is as solidly-constructed as team White's top group, but I'd still feel confident pitting them against the top competition of any team in the league.
What's even more promising about this change is that it opens up the role of the third line center firmly for the grasp of Darren Helm. When placed between Abdelkader and Bertuzzi, this will give the Wings a third line with speed, tenacity, and the size to play as a proper checking line (not to mention two players with above-average puck-handling and one wild card who shoots from all over the ice to create good rebounds). Playing in front of Ericsson-Kindl/Commodore, this combination of players will have the ability to wear down opposing teams and a good amount of counter-attacking capabilities.
Filppula's move to winger on Henrik Zetterberg's line allows him to best-utilize his skill set as a speedy two-way forward with excellent defensive instincts, great on-ice awareness and deft passing. It gives the Red Wings the ability to ice two lines which can compete against other teams' top lines consistently and makes room on the third line for a young centerman to take on the responsibilities for which he's ready.
I can't wait for this season to start.