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What can the Flyers expect from Valtteri Filppula?

The Flyers had found their third-line center for this season ... and then they got Nolan Patrick. What’s it all mean for Valtteri Filppula?

Kate Frese / SB Nation

Sometimes, sports teams make bad decisions that just so happen to work out. Other times, teams make bad decisions that don’t work out. But other times still, a team makes a decision for what appears to be the right reasons, only to have something unforeseen happen that ultimately makes said decision look much worse, opening themselves up to criticism despite a reasonably sound thought process.

It may be too early to tell, but the Flyers’ decision to trade for Valtteri Filppula could very well be filed under that last category before too long.

On the afternoon of the trade deadline back in March, Filppula was acquired by the Flyers in what was a pure salary dump from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since the Lightning dealt Filppula, a 4th-round pick, and a 7th-round pick to the Flyers for Mark Streit, only to immediately turn around and deal Streit to the Penguins for another 4th-round pick, the net impact of those trades for the Lightning was essentially that they gave up Filppula and a 7th-round pick for nothing.

But that doesn’t mean that Filppula was a worthless player, or even necessarily a negative-value one. He (and his $5 million cap hit through 2017-18) just represented as much to a Tampa team that figured to be right up against the salary cap this summer with key contracts to sign. In Filppula, the Flyers saw an opportunity to pick up one more top-9 center through the end of the 2017-18 season — not to mention, one that brought the flexibility of what Hextall referred to as essentially a “one-year deal”, which was likely favorable to whatever kind of contract he’d have to give a comparable middle-6 center in free agency.

Plus, it’s clear the Flyers liked Filppula as a player — Hextall had no issue with the fact that he’d be forced to protect Filppula in June’s expansion draft due to his no-movement clause. The GM had a lot to say about Filppula’s abilities and his fit on this roster, and was happy with the team’s newfound depth up the middle that this trade had brought them.

The plan made a lot of sense, particularly in a world where the Flyers only had a 2.4 percent chance of moving up in the lottery to the second pick and drafting perhaps the top prospect in the 2017 NHL Draft, one who is probably ready for the NHL right now and who happens to play the same position as Filppula ...

...

So.

About that.

Obviously, the Flyers getting Nolan Patrick is, in every sense of the word, an incredible thing for this franchise. You know that and don’t need me to tell you that, and we’ll hopefully have plenty of time during the preseason and this season and the next 15 or so years to talk more about it. His making the team this year is something we should all be hoping for, and the fact that his doing so may force the Flyers to alter a plan that relied on a 33-year-old center with one year left on his contract really does not matter at all.

Still, if Patrick does make the Flyers this coming season, he does represent one additional piece of a puzzle that only has room for 12 pieces at a time, and it seems like his piece is probably going to go right where the team was planning to put Filppula’s before April 29. And there may not be a ton more room for the Finnish veteran’s piece elsewhere in that frame.

So where can the Flyers put him?


As the 2017-18 Flyers season draws near, we’ll be breaking down everyone we expect to make the roster, from the long-time vets to the new guys. For each player, we’ll ask three key questions about their season, and look at what their best- and worst-case scenarios are for the year.


3 Big Questions: Valtteri Filppula

1. Just how good is Filppula, anyways?

A good sign of the Flyers’ struggles at 5-on-5 offensively last season came on the day that Filppula was traded to the Flyers, because at that moment he immediately became the leader among players on the roster in 5-on-5 scoring that season. Heck, Filppula was well ahead of most of his new teammates — the Flyer closest to Filppula and his 1.85 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was Travis Konecny, who at that point of the season had rung up 1.69 points per 60. It’s rare that a non-contending team picks up a new “scoring leader” in any capacity at the trade deadline, but last year’s acquisition of Filppula was essentially that. (All stats in this article courtesy of Natural Stat Trick unless noted otherwise.)

Unfortunately — and perhaps unsurprisingly — Filppula’s strong production from his time with the Lightning didn’t quite carry over during his month-plus with the Flyers. In their 20 games with him on the roster, Filppula registered just five points at 5-on-5, good for a points per 60 mark of 1.13. That mark was actually fourth-worst among the 12 Flyers forwards to play at least 150 5-on-5 minutes during that timeframe.

So what can the Flyers expect from Filppula? Is it the top-6 center that showed up for three-quarters of the year in Tampa, or the bottom-6 guy that arrived in Philadelphia in March?

The most likely answer is probably “somewhere in between”. But there are concerns, ones that shouldn’t be surprising for a 33-year old who’s been around a while.

Let’s take a quick look at how Filppula’s scoring numbers have trended since he began his current contract in Tampa, looking at his point totals as well as his shooting percentages — both individual and on-ice.

Valtteri Filppula Scoring Summary 2013-17

Season Total Points Points/Game (All) Points/60 (5v5) Individual SH% (5v5) On-Ice SH% (5v5)
Season Total Points Points/Game (All) Points/60 (5v5) Individual SH% (5v5) On-Ice SH% (5v5)
2013-14 58 0.77 1.81 17.2 7.87
2014-15 48 0.59 1.4 10.9 7.51
2015-16 31 0.41 1.07 7.8 5.54
2016-17 (TOTAL) 42 0.53 1.64 11.8 7.82
2016-17 (TBL) 34 0.58 1.85 10.34 8.14
2016-17 (PHI) 8 0.4 1.13 16.67 6.78

Filppula’s respectable scoring numbers this past season bucked a downward trend that had been established over the three previous seasons, during which he quickly descended from posting first-line numbers in 2013-14 to posting what were more like third-line numbers in 2015-16. In his time with Tampa this past season, Filppula looked more like a solid second-line center.

But his numbers following the trade to Philadelphia were meager, as only a fairly high individual shooting percentage (he scored 3 goals on 18 shots at 5-on-5 during his time with the Flyers) kept his numbers even in the range of a third-liner.

Where can we expect him to be this year? Fortunately, there’s reason to believe Filppula’s own poor on-ice shooting percentage will bounce back a bit from the low mark it was at with the Flyers, who as a team are due for a bit of a shooting bounce-back this season. And while yes, his individual shooting percentage should drop, that will only make so much of a difference with a guy who barely shoots the puck as it is. (More on that in a second.)

An expectation that Filppula will end up somewhere in third-liner territory in terms of scoring at 5-on-5 this year is probably fair. And that’s probably also a reasonable expectation for what his role will be with the team this season — Filppula, whose other play-driving metrics have taken a slight turn towards the negative in the past few years, is probably just a bottom-6 center at this point in his career. A solid one, one who would definitely have a place on most teams in this league, but one regardless.

2. Does Filppula’s style fit well with the Flyers’ forwards?

Even if Filppula is most likely a bottom-6 forward at this point in his career, there’s certainly still some value in that. Depth players with scoring upside are crucial parts of any winning team nowadays, and it’s at least plausible that he can fill that kind of a role even if he’s not the legitimate scoring threat he’s been in the past.

But one of the keys to making that work will be finding the right linemates to put around Filppula, ones that will unlock the skills that he has and vice-versa. On this Flyers roster, that could be harder than it sounds, for one key reason: Valtteri Filppula is going to need guys around him that can shoot the puck, and the Flyers just don’t have many guys like that sitting around in their forward corps that figure to play alongside Filppula.

One thing that’s glaringly obvious, both in watching Filppula and looking at his statistical profile, is that he’s certainly what you could call a pass-first player. Here are Filppula’s ranks in shots on goal per 60 minutes, relative to all NHL forwards to play at least 500 5-on-5 minutes, since he signed with Tampa four years ago:

  • 2016-17: 334th out of 352 forwards
  • 2015-16: 325 out of 352
  • 2014-15: 358 out of 362
  • 2013-14: 290 out of 344

Now, in and of itself, that’s not necessarily a problem. With the right personnel around a pass-first player, chemistry and success can certainly be found. The issue here is that the Flyers may not have that personnel readily available in their forward ranks.

Below, you’ll see a table that shows each NHL team’s 5-on-5 shots on goal per 60 minutes from their forwards last season. You’ll notice that Flyers forwards don’t stack up very well in this shot-volume measure, ranking 24th among the league’s 30 teams — and of the six teams below them by this measure, four of them were the four worst teams in the NHL last season.

2016-17 Team 5-on-5 Forward Shot Rates

Team 5-on-5 Ice Time 5-on-5 SOG by Forwards Forward SOG/60
Team 5-on-5 Ice Time 5-on-5 SOG by Forwards Forward SOG/60
PIT 3925.28 1577 24.11
BOS 3872.15 1548 23.99
TOR 3945.88 1508 22.93
CHI 3962.12 1490 22.56
MIN 4043.67 1520 22.55
L.A 3948.32 1473 22.38
DAL 3953.52 1474 22.37
BUF 4016.40 1495 22.33
NSH 3929.15 1407 21.49
CAR 4031.83 1443 21.47
ANA 3860.67 1378 21.42
MTL 4002.75 1425 21.36
CBJ 4042.18 1437 21.33
EDM 3994.53 1394 20.94
NYR 3993.12 1391 20.90
NYI 4025.33 1376 20.51
FLA 3877.40 1324 20.49
WSH 3875.85 1318 20.40
DET 3954.17 1343 20.38
OTT 3881.13 1312 20.28
WPG 3869.43 1279 19.83
CGY 3862.70 1275 19.80
T.B 3869.62 1276 19.78
PHI 3887.17 1280 19.76
N.J 3910.02 1262 19.37
ARI 3962.00 1274 19.29
COL 3920.28 1242 19.01
VAN 4046.12 1278 18.95
S.J 3993.82 1257 18.88
STL 3923.10 1222 18.69

(It’s also worth noting that these numbers don’t take into account the fact that the Flyers recently acquired Jori Lehtera, whose career shot counts in the NHL are pretty similar to Filppula’s.)

Some of this may be a product of tactics. The Flyers rely on shots from their defensemen a lot (Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere say hello), and maybe this would change a bit if the coaches tried relying less on low-to-high tactics and more on other means of offense that generate shots for their forwards.

With that said, any number that suggests the Flyers don’t have many big-time shooters up front probably fits with the eye test. Who on this team really strikes you as much of a gunner? And as it pertains to Filppula, how many if any of those guys are likely to spend much time in a bottom-6 role?

Konecny, who was the team’s leader among season regulars in shots per 60, may get there, but he’s still a work in progress. Simmonds can be willing, but he’s more of a go-to-the-net-and-find-it guy than a pure shooter. And either way, it’d be surprising to see either of them spending much time in the bottom half of the lineup. If the team drops Jordan Weal onto Filppula’s line, he may have the willingness to shoot the puck enough for his linemate if his stint with the Flyers last season was any indication.

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

But the fact that that may be the team’s best bet at finding a “fit” alongside Filppula this year says a lot about how awkward this situation could become. Finding success for Filppula this year could hinge on the Flyers playing him alongside a player with a skill, but it’s a skill that the Flyers as a whole are already lacking in, and said player can’t have so much of it that he won’t be a lock to be in the top-6. It’s a challenge, and there may not be a good answer.

The biggest wild-card here, though, could be the guy pushing Filppula out of his “original” 3C spot in the lineup: Nolan Patrick. Among the No. 2 overall pick’s appealing skills is a strong shot and a willingness to use it, and that could work out alright with a pass-first forward like Filppula. The big problem there, of course, is that Filppula and Patrick play the same position.

Which brings us to our next question.

3. Is a shift to the wing for Filppula inevitable?

As of right now, the average Flyers fan could be forgiven for drawing up some projected opening-night lines without even considering the possibility that Valtteri Filppula is playing at center. That’s because the team already has players down the middle that figure to be natural fits at each center line.

Claude Giroux, for all the questions surrounding him, will be the Flyers’ top-line center this season. Sean Couturier will remain the second-line center by name. If Nolan Patrick does make the Flyers, the third-line center role seems like where he would probably start out. And Scott Laughton, who the Flyers protected in expansion this past June, figures to be the clubhouse leader for the fourth-line center position.

That leaves Filppula without a spot at his natural position, and it’s tough to know what he can really do to change it. Giroux isn’t going anywhere (and, even if he was, Filppula isn’t taking his place at this point in his career), nor is Couturier, and it’s hard to imagine that the Flyers wouldn’t immediately get Patrick started out at his natural position.

Which means that if the Flyers see Filppula as a player who will get regular minutes, his best chance at doing so (short of Patrick not making the team) will likely be on the wing. That’s not something Filppula did much of in Tampa, but here it may be his only choice.

There’s just one problem there: even a spot on the wing doesn’t come with any guarantees on this Flyers team. The ranks are looking pretty full there as well — Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Jordan Weal, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Konecny, and Michael Raffl are all guys that figure to be in top-9 winger roles, and Filppula being in one would mean one of them getting pushed down to the fourth line (or off the team).

All of which is to say what we already knew: there’s no obvious fit for Filppula on this roster right now. He probably has some skill left in him, but it’s tough to see the Flyers prioritizing him over young players that may have a spot in this team’s long-term future or vets that are simply better players than he is.

Ron Hextall has at multiple points mentioned how much he like the way the Flyers’ forward lines looked late in the season, after Filppula was acquired and after Jordan Weal was called up. He said as much about a week before the team won the lottery back in April. But right now, there’s enough forward talent on this team that some guys are going to have to be playing in some places where they don’t want to be, whether that’s a different spot on the ice or on a different team.

Filppula, the oldest player on the Flyers, is the easiest player to have a tough conversation with about that, no matter how much the team may like him. His having a no-movement clause means he’s not going anywhere unless a trade comes around that’s ideal for all parties involved, but unless he comes right in at training camp and wows everyone, he may be forced to play out of position this year if he’s looking for steady ice time with the Flyers.


Worst-case scenario

After Nolan Patrick surprisingly doesn’t make the Flyers, Filppula ends up in the third-line center role we all expected him to be in. But his play doesn’t end up anywhere near where the Flyers were hoping it would be, as the third line struggles to generate offense with too few guys that are willing to shoot the puck. Filppula’s scoring rates and play-driving abilities crater to fourth-line levels, all while the team insists on keeping him in the lineup to provide a veteran presence. In the end, everyone ends up looking on his one full year with the Flyers as time that should have been given to a young player instead.


Best-case scenario

While it wasn’t quite in the way he and the Flyers had initially envisioned, Filppula ends up being a key part of the Flyers’ top-9 after all. Nolan Patrick makes the team out of camp, and Filppula complements him very well as a pass-first wing that allows the young center to fire away at will. Filppula’s scoring rates balloon up to second-line levels, and he ends up being a roughly-even relative possession player. His play gives the Flyers some flexibility when the trade deadline rolls around: they can keep him around and continue to play him with the rookie/rookies, or (if he agrees to it) they could look to send him to another potential playoff team, getting some value out of the 33-year-old’s expiring contract and giving him a chance to get back to the postseason all while opening up a spot for another forward to get some ice time.


Previously in Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Season Previews:

How does Radko Gudas fit on a changing Flyers blue line?

Is a bounce-back actually in store for Claude Giroux this season?