Finnish forward Valtteri Filppula did not play his first Finnish Elite League game until the 2003-04 season with Jokerit Helsinki as a 19-year-old, a late start compared to many top Finnish prospects. Regardless, the 2003 third-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings has quickly developed to become one of the organization’s top prospects and one of Finland’s top young forwards.
Filppula made a name for himself at the 2002 IIHF U18 World Championships by scoring four goals and six assists in eight games, second in Team Finland scoring behind Sean Bergenheim in a high scoring tournament. The playmaking forward dominated Finnish Junior A with 16 goals and 37 assists in 36 games and four goals and 10 assists in 11 games. The 2002-03 season also saw Filppula skate in his first World Junior Championships in Halifax. The following year, the 19-year-old played in his first SM-Liiga games and put up a respectable five goals and 13 assists in 49 games. Playing in Finland’s top league helped prepare Filppula to lead Finland to the bronze in the Helsinki tournament and a spot on the All Tournament Team with a team-leading four goals and five assists in nine games, good for fourth at the tournament.
Now fully established as one of Finland’s top young players, Filppula followed up the 2003-04 season with 10 goals and 20 assists in 55 games with Jokerit in 2004-05, skating primarily alongside veterans Petri Varis and Juha Lind. The playoffs proved to be a major breakout for Filppula, as he tied former NHLer Glen Metropolit for second in Jokerit playoff scoring with five goals and six assists in 12 games.
Filppula received little hype heading in the 2005-06 season, but he’s proven to be one of the top young forwards in the AHL. After 47 games, Filppula has 17 goals and 29 assists. His 46 points place him 20th in AHL scoring in his first season of North American hockey. The strong skater was rewarded with a place on PlanetUSA’s roster at the AHL All-Star Game in Winnipeg. Although Planet USA lost 9-4 to the Canadian All-Stars, Filppula managed an assist on Eric Healey’s goal late in the second period that broke Canada’s seven-goal streak.
Filppula also managed an assist in his first NHL game, a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers Dec. 15. Recalled by Detroit Dec. 14, the Finn received only spot shift duty but managed to assist on Dan Cleary’s third period goal to open Detroit’s scoring. He skated even less in his next game, 1:30 Dec. 17 against Tampa Bay, before being sent back down to Grand Rapids Dec. 20. The call-up made Filppula the youngest forward to play for the Red Wings this season.
Hockey’s Future recently caught up with Filppula just prior to the AHL All-Star Game and discussed the upcoming game, his successful adjustment to North American hockey, and his impressive past in Finland.
HF: Being named to the AHL All-Star Game, in your rookie season, how does that make you feel?
VF: Makes me feel good. It’s a good nomination. I really don’t know what to expect, but I’m really looking forward to it.
HF: You also played a couple games with Detroit this season, what was it like to get that call and get that first shift in the NHL?
VF: It was great. It was a little bit of an overwhelming feeling, maybe a little too excited. I was really happy about the call and hopefully next call I can stay there longer.
HF: What are some of the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make in the North American game coming from Finland?
VF: It’s a smaller rink, so that changes the game quite a bit actually. Things happen faster and you’ve got to try and make plays faster. It’s not so much true in European rinks, but it’s okay, I like it, it’s fun. There’s a lot of chances to grow, it’s more like front and back.
HF: How does the AHL compare to the SM-Liiga?
VF: I don’t know. It’s tough to compare, because the game is a bit different. In Finland there’s a little more passing and going like sideways, because there’s more room. Here you if you don’t go straight ahead all the time, a guy’s going to grab you. That’s why I think it’s really hard to compare the skill levels.
HF: You established yourself as one of Jokerit’s top forwards as a 20-year-old and in only your second pro season, what helped you excel so quickly in the SM-Liiga?
VF: I played with a couple older guys, so that helped me a lot. They both played NHL and back in Finland, so they could teach me a lot of things and tell me what to do.
HF: Who were those two guys?
VF: Petri Varis and Juha Lind.
HF: You played in the SM-Liiga in 2003-04, how much did playing in the SM-Liiga help prepare you for the 2004 World Junior Championships?
VF: It helped a lot, because the World Junior Championships are all the top players in all of the countries. So, I was playing that tough game and that type of game all season, so I was prepared for that tournament through the whole season. I think that helped me a lot.
HF: It was in Finland, did that help you too?
VF: Yeah, it was great. Home crowd and we didn’t have to go anywhere, just concentrate on our home town, and it was actually my hometown too. That helped too.
HF: How special is it to wear the Suomi jersey?
VF: It’s a really good thing. It’s an honor to represent your home country. I’m really happy with all of those national team games that I’ve been able to play.
HF: What would you say your favorite memory is with the national team so far?
VF: I would have to say the bronze medal in the Helsinki tournament, I think that’s in the top there.
HF: What would you say are your strengths as a player?
VF: I try to create offense, I try to pass to my wingers and more like a playmaker, I try to be. Also, I try to be good in the defensive end. That’s what I’ve got to improve on most. So, I’ve been trying to work defense really hard too. I try to be like a two-way player.
HF: Any other areas you’re trying to improve on so that you can play in Detroit?
VF: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of those. Shot is one of them. Here you don’t have that much time to shoot, so I’ve got to try and make that quicker. I don’t shoot a lot, I could shoot more, but that’s one of the areas I must improve.
HF: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
VF: I watched Teemu Selanne a lot and Jere Lehtinen. I think those two guys I liked the most.
HF: What are your goals the rest of the season?
VF: Just to go so far I as we can with the team and hopefully to play as good as I can. There’s always a challenge, we play 60 games in Finland and here we play 80, so that’s a big challenge to me. I try to stay so I can keep going through the season.
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