Filppula, Expectations and the Legend of Vyacheslav Kozlov

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.

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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.

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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

133 thoughts on “Filppula, Expectations and the Legend of Vyacheslav Kozlov”

  1. Oh, yay for this post! I love thinking about our boys in different ways, and I’d never would’ve thought to compare Flip to Kozzie. I liked Kozzie, never loved him, but was always thrilled when he scored and did well, because he was one of our boys, and quiet, and clearly not a dickhead. I was all 🙁 when he was no longer a Wing.

    As for Flip, if he never gets better than this, I’m okay with that. If he never becomes flashy and superstar-like, I’m okay with that, too. As long HE is okay with it. And I sometimes wonder, since so many people put the pressure on him to be more, if he wants to do more than what he does now, too.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Hollis. Nothing like waking up, heading to work early, and spending time on the clock reading TPL.

    Filp is going to put up a career high in points this season and everyone might still be talking about even higher expectations. Regardless, he contributes on the ice even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

    Although if we’re comparing him to Kozlov, does that mean the Wings are going to trade him and a 1st round pick to Buffalo for Ryan Miller?

  3. Great post.

    My own ManCrush on Fil developed out of his attention to details, hard work and ability to step up to challenges. He was out there with less than a minute left in game 5 against San Jose in 2007, took a hit to make a great short pass to Lang who scored to tie the game and send it into overtime. And he was incredible in last year’s playoffs, stepping up his game almost as much as Z does.

    You’re absolutely right that the expectations might inhibit our appreciation of who he is and what he does now. But, you have to admit, it’s hard not to want and expect him to put up more points when you see a player capable of owning the rink. Chief said he occasionally looks like #91, backing off the D with his speed coming in, back checking and skating backward as naturally as any d-man. That’s an incredible skill set and should inevitably show up on the score sheet; or so we expect.

    Anyway, I agree with you. ManCrush should be appreciated more.

  4. Great piece. I always wondered why people complained that Filp wasn’t stepping up. I always thought he played great hockey. He may be the flashiest player, but there’s never been a point where I’ve angrily shouted, “What the hell what that Filp!?” at the TV, unlike some forwards I know.

  5. Well I agree Flip is a good player, I think some of us still hope that he has not yet reached his full potential.

  6. Speaking of expectations, you keep writing pieces like this one and you are going to set your own expectations too high! Really well done Hollis, I couldn’t agree more. I can’t even tell you how many times last season I would read a comment somewhere about how Flip was a disappointment with only 11 goals or that he didn’t have that breakout year everyone expected and I would scream at my computer screen about “unrealistic expectations” and “short memories” (given that people couldn’t seem to remember that he missed almost 30 games with a broken wrist, an rather important joint for a hockey player).
    I think you hit the nail on the head about his looks. Nobody expected anything of Kozlov other than to just do his job well because he wasn’t flashy, was almost painfully shy, and he looked like your kid brother. On the other hand there is a lot of disappointment that Fil hasn’t rivaled Datsyuk or Zetterberg in points totals (two players we definitely see flashes of in his play) and he is, as you said, “young, handsome, and talented.”
    I would love to see him reach the level that people seem to expect of him…but if he never gets there, I am pretty damn happy with the strong two-way player he already is. On a complete tangent, wasn’t Flip the next player that Kitty Joliet was supposed to rate? I am dying to find out who she chose…

    1. Anne, I had a long talk with Kitty J over Thanksgiving dinner and she’s agreed to saddle back up for the remainder of the series. As it does so often in this salary cap era, it came down to contract disputes…her feeling underappreciated, overworked and not fairly compensated. We tore up the entry level contract and are damn close to finalizing the t’s and c’s on the new one.

      Thanks for keeping tabs on this!

  7. First let me say that Filppula is a great player. Every game he makes a few plays in each end that impress the hell out of me. He’s no Pavel but he’s a hell of a player in both ends, and here in lies the problem.

    Flip’s game is so similar to Pavel’s that sometimes if I ignore the numbers I get the two confused. Playing on the same team the comparisons are inevitable and that’s not fair to Filppula. He’s his own player and he needs to be taken as such, judged based on his skills not how close they are to any other player. Fortunately we have a couple of world class guys who’s job it is to do just that, Ken Holland and Mike Babcock.

    I think uncle Mike’s assessment of Filppula’s talent is spot on. He doesn’t expect him to be Pavel but he does expect him to be a dominant second line center. And for the most part Filppula is, he’s fantastic in the defensive zone and at the face off dot, he plays in all situations and is one of our best guys bringing the puck out of our zone. His speed and vision are fantastic, even though he eschews shooting a bit more than we’d like he’s a very effective passer and usually makes great decisions on where to distribute the puck.

    Really Babcock’s only complaint with Filppula is he doesn’t put up the points it seems he should and I think there’s some validity to that complaint. To me his lack of point production comes down to two things, being harder on the puck and wanting to score. If we can criticize Hudler for being too soft on the puck than Filppula gets some crow for turnovers in the offensive end. I swear for every back check he makes that leads to a Wings breakout there’s a time he gets poked off the puck too easily breaking out the other team.

    There’s a desire that the elite scorers all seem to have, a passion and a drive to see the puck go in the back of the net and it just doesn’t appear that Filppula has it at this point. There’s no doubt that his laid back personality contributes to the conception, or misconception, that he doesn’t have that desire, but I think comparing him to Franzen really reveals the difference. Franzen plays with a killer’s attitude, he doesn’t shoot just to score, he shoots to assert himself and to take the game away from the other team. Right or wrong the impression that Filppula gives is that when he shoots he does so because it was the right play or the smart play, not because he saw an opportunity to score and passion wouldn’t let him pass on it.

    If you don’t have it desire is easily the hardest part of the game, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Filppula could dominate the game in both ends if he really wanted to and I don’t think I’m alone there. That’s why Filppula always feels like he’s on the verge of a huge breakout, because honestly he is.

  8. Ok, one more thing. Fil isn’t “good looking,” or “handsome” or any other adjective I find unworthy.

    The freakishly perfect symmetry of his face needs its own term. Suggestions are welcome but I use Manretty, a slang derivative of ManPretty.

  9. Hollis wrote an awesome post here. It’s well-written, logical, and right on the money.

    I absolutely adore Flip. He’s been one of my favorite Red Wings since his call-up days when I’d notice someone I didn’t immediately recognize, only to realize it was ALWAYS the young Finn. I agree with Hollis and all of the commenters so far: while he may always be “poised” for a breakout offensive onslaught, he does everything well and I’m not aching for him to score 40. If he does, great. If he doesn’t, and simply continues to play how he plays — ridiculously solid at both ends of the ice, scoring a goal here and there, assisting on plenty of others, playing valuable top six minutes without making any egregious (shall we call them “Bertuzzi-like”) errors — there’s absolutely nothing else you should ask of the Manretty [(c) Osrt] Machine.

    People will always complain that he doesn’t score enough for someone with a $3M salary. But, as we’ve learned as Red Wings fans, there are always other ways to contribute and earn your paycheck. He more than outweighs his salary, I feel.

    Would you rather have Ales Kotalik for 3 bills?

  10. The Flip-to-Kozlov comparison is a great one. But I think you’re overstating the blog world reaction as the general Wings fan reaction as far as expecting Filpulla to take another step into the realm of Pavrick Zetterbyuks and Igorgei Fedorionovs. I think most fans see him exactly as Kozlov was seen, a scoring line non-superstar whom you are very glad to have on your team, and worth enough NHL points that another team might think he’s enough in return for the game’s best goalie.Flip is one of the first guys I think of when I’m telling people why the Red Wings are so good even if other teams might be able to match us for star power. Because who else has a player the caliber of Valterri on their second or third lines? You can’t even get a guy like him anymore, not since the NHL, in its never-ending quest to make the NHL all about hot new 18-year-old stars, “closed the loophole” that Detroit used for drafting guys like this and giving him enough time to develop his game before releasing him to the dogs.I won’t argue your point about today’s game being star-centric, or at least its marketing is such. But that only goes so far — I succinctly remember a commercial from Kozlov’s time where Fedorov skipped around about 18 skaters before firing a shot past three goalies. At least today a guy like Lidstrom is heralded fairly widely; remember when, not all that long ago, nobody outside of Detroit and those places nobody can pronounce on a Risk board knew why Slava Fetisov was a big deal.** In Mother Russia, even our deals are bigger!

  11. This was unbelievably awesome. I get a bit teary-eyed when I read someone else praising my Baby Boy instead of tearing him down, which happens far too often. I’ve loved the kid since I first saw him way back when and he will continue to be the focus of my highly inappropriate crush for many, many more years.

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