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March 7, 2011

by Karen Patterson -

The name may familiar, but as far as Ilari Filppula is concerned, playing for the same team as his brother before moving up to the parent-club Detroit Red Wings is as simple as tying a pair of skates. While the comparisons to younger brother Valterri may not end for a while, the elder Filppula is making a name for himself by handling the transition to North America like a seasoned-pro.
In his first season wearing the Griffins jersey, the 5-foot-11, 189 pound center has recorded a team-leading 52 points (19-33—52) through 60 appearances. Only team-veteran and Captain Jamie Tardif has recorded more goals (23), while Filppula also leads the team in assists. Additionally the Finnish import maintains a plus-3 rating with only 20 penalty minutes and his 52 points stand 13th in the AHL as of March 7.

Not bad for a player who had seven European professional seasons under his belt before even getting a taste of the different North American style of play. 

Now in his eighth pro campaign at the age of 29, Filppula made his North American start later in his career, but he has grappled with the same issues plenty of players experience when transitioning between leagues.

“I felt I struggled quite a bit in the beginning,” Filppula said. “Still there’s some stuff that I could be doing better, a lot better. Since it’s a totally different game here it takes time, but I feel it’s going to be okay.”

Griffins’ Head Coach Curt Fraser has noticed the steady improvement in Filppula’s game.

“He’s improved 100 percent since the start of the year. He started out trying to do a little too much and trying to make something out of nothing too often to help his teammates, but he’s really learned from it and he’s doing a much better job,” Fraser said.

The hard work is paying off in tangible ways, as Filppula carries a team-high (tied) eight-game point streak (1-11—12) into the March 8 game in Peoria.

Scoring streaks are a trend Filppula wants to continues, since it is not uncommon for first year players from Europe to start off hot-handedly before fading later in the season due to a more demanding schedule.

“It took him a little to learn the systems, but I think he’s done a tremendous job,” Fraser said. “He’s an older player who knows how much we need him and count on him. He’s gotten up and led our team most nights in producing offense, leading our team in scoring and that doesn’t happen by accident at this level.”

Further recognition came midway through the season when Filppula played in the AHL All-Star game. During the high-scoring affair, the 29-year-old netted one of the Western Conference’s eight goals while also serving up an assist. 

However, no hockey game is ever perfect and Filppula sees areas for improvement in his own game.

“I think I need to play a little more straight forward and avoid turnovers. Play more simple at times, get the puck deep and really focus on my defensive game too, so that I’m not on the ice when they score,” he said. “In Europe there’s more space so there’s much more that you can do. Here with the rink being smaller, guys are maybe a little bit bigger and stronger so it does affect the game.”

As a coach, Fraser hopes to see Filppula continue to carry the momentum as the Griffins finish the final games of the season. The team is fighting to climb the standings and clinch a playoff spot; Fraser will look to Filppula, along with line mates Tomas Tatar and Tardif to set an example for the rest of the team.

“We’ve adjusted the other lines but that line remains the same because they’re producing,” Fraser said. “If we expect to get where we want to go, they’re going to have to lead us all the way. Is it going to be easy? No, but they’re all doing very well.”

While the Red Wings signed Filppula to a one-year contract, both player and coach are hopeful that he’ll have a future in Detroit.

“I think he’s certainly caught the attention of a lot of people. His skill level is extremely high and he does some real good things on the ice that you don’t see in a lot of players,” Fraser said. “Hopefully he sticks around here because we like having him and I know Detroit likes him here in their organization.”

“You know, the chance to play in the NHL has been a goal for me throughout my career,” Filppula said. “I had been in the Finnish leagues for eight years, so I’ve seen that league and wanted to try something new. If the opportunity comes, it’d be awesome to play there.”

While the call-up may not come this season—if Detroit were to reassign him, Filppula would have to clear waivers, leaving him eligible to be picked up by any team in the NHL—Filppula hopes that his hard work this season will earn him a spot on the Wings’ roster down the road.

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