Somewhere in California, Valtteri Filppula is waking up right now. He’s well-rested. He’s refreshed. His team is playing well and he is feeling good. Yes, life can’t get much better right now for the 26 year-old from Vantaa, Finland.
Yet somewhere, right now, some writer is putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to challenge Flip. It’s been the same story over the past three years when it comes to Filppula. “On the cusp.” “Ready to break through.” “One big game away.” Everyone from the local beat writers to Uncle Mike himself has said that they expect Filppula to take the next step, yet a quarter of the way through Flip’s fifth professional season, we find ourselves sitting at the intersection of “expectations” and “execution” with no sign of the number 51 car in sight.
In the third round of the 1990 entry draft, the Detroit Red Wings selected an 18 year old Russian forward with the 45th overall draft pick. A young player with plenty of potential upside, Vyacheslav Kozlov would take only two years to crack the Red Wings roster, eventually becoming one of the prime contributors on one of the most fearsome lines ever to take to an NHL ice surface. For Kozlov, though, the game was one that never saw him steal the spotlight. No, that was left to the Fedorov’s and the Konstantinov’s of the “Russian Five.” For the young man from Voskresensk, it was all about being reliable at both ends of the ice: a tribute not only to his own style of play, but to that of the coach who would lead him to a pair of Stanley Cups.
Sure, Kozlov had his moments in the sun. A pair of 73 point seasons in the mid-90’s is nothing to sneeze at, but each of those campaigns saw Kozlov fall short of bringing home a championship and only served to raise the bar of expectations even higher for a guy who was more at home with a solid two-way game and preferred to stay out of the spotlight and away from the media and the cameras. Fittingly, one of Kozlov’s best years was the 1997 Stanley Cup winning season, which saw him score 45 points in the regular season and then another 13 in the playoffs, helping bring home a trophy to a city that so desperately craved it. 8 of those 13 points in the playoffs were pucks off his stick blade that found the back of the net, yet if you asked Kozlov today, he’d probably tell you he was more proud of his two-way game and his team trophy than he was with those goals he potted. That is, if he would even talk to you.
Perhaps it’s his blond hair and good looks that draws the eye to Valtteri Filppula. Young, handsome and talented, it’s no secret that every time he takes the ice, eyes find Flip and expect great things. It’s too bad, really, when you sit back and think about this young man’s career up to this point. While Flip is quietly putting together a career based on the same solid two-way play that a previous Red Wings #13 prided himself on, so many of the fans and media can do nothing more than sit and wonder “Where’s the beef?” Not enough scoring. Not enough “shoot.” Not enough blonde. 13 points in 21 games? That’s great and all, but not enough flare and not enough panache to make you even think twice, really.
Despite all of those expectations and despite all of the prophecies laid down about his potential, Valtteri Filppula continues to contribute as best he can. He’s putting up the points and he’s defensively responsible, fulfilling the very same ideals that Kozlov held not so many years ago when he wore the Winged Wheel. Yet for some reason, the scrutiny that Filppula’s game faces on a daily basis has far surpassed the level that Kozlov saw years ago in the Joe. Two players formed out of the same mold, yet one was quietly brilliant while the other is brilliantly “quiet.”
Maybe it’s everything to do with the looks and nothing to do with the way the game is actually played. Filppula is a rock star in many ways when it comes to this Red Wings team, albeit with his looks and style rather than his goal-scoring prowess, I suppose. Perhaps, then, Filppula brings all of the expectations upon himself. In an organization where it always seems like there’s a young guy ready to explode onto the scene, Filppula has basically quietly entered the room and gone about his business, making sure nothing is out of place and everything is put away properly and kept in order. Yet it’s not enough to see a guy like Flip quietly do his thing and prop up his teammates along the way. It’s not like he’s playing with some schlubs out there. Danny Cleary is the leading goal scorer on the team right now and Todd Bertuzzi is playing some of the best hockey he’s played in the last few seasons. Same for Johan Franzen. Yet the fact that Filppula is out there making the simple and effective pass to facilitate those goals for his teammates is something that is overlooked so often that many folks don’t even realize what he’s doing or where he is. Perhaps that’s the point though. Perhaps that’s the best compliment we can give Valtteri Filppula.
Maybe that’s why the expectations bother me so much then. When it comes to getting something done in my own life, I’m the type to put my head down and just go for it, quietly completing a task in a world where so many believe the loudest and most flamboyant are the ones who are doing it correctly. Is there anything wrong with putting on a show and having some fun along the way? Absolutely not. For some, though, satisfaction lies in a job well done and then picking up the lunch pail on the way out the door with nothing more than a word and a smile.
For Filppula and Kozlov, that is the modus operandi. Hard work. Job well done. On to the next one. Yet for a pair of players who share such similarities in their game, it doesn’t make sense that one is expected to blow the doors off the joint while the other was never more than a three word quote on a three point night. Yes, the game and the atmosphere around it has completely changed, now favoring a circus where the superstar is God and everything else usually rings hollow. That’s the nature of the beast and nobody can stop it, try as they might. But in a city where an honest day’s work is regularly touted and celebrated, perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at what #51 is currently doing while also putting away the lofty expectations that this young man may never reach. Otherwise, one day Filppula may leave town as a guy who “failed to meet expectations” instead of the guy who left town and quietly went about his business in the next town he was designated to.
Love Kozlov or hate him, there’s no denying that he was a man who did the things he was tasked to do and then went about his business. It’s time to expect the same from Filppula. Rather than having him “fall short” of expectations on a regular basis, maybe it’s time to be pleasantly surprised when he scores another timely goal or buries yet another game winner for the good guys (which he is currently 2nd in the NHL in doing.) If Filppula is meant to become a great scorer, then his work ethic and skills will take him there, but will do so in due time. It’s time to do away with the incessant timetables that we set up for his success, as they do nothing but derail the true excellence in his game. If we don’t stop now, it may be too late before we realize what a great thing we truly have, only making sense after it’s long gone from both the arena and our memories.
Just like that other #13.
Picture courtesy of The Hockey News