Return of Valtteri Filppula means Andreas Athanasiou will shift back to wing
Detroit — Valtteri Filppula is excited about returning to the Detroit Red Wings.
The veteran center, who was drafted by and began his career with the Wings, signed a two-year contract Monday — the first day of unrestricted free agency — worth $6 million ($3 million cap hit).
Filppula, 35, was third-round draft pick of the Wings in 2002, and is entering his 15th season in the NHL.
Filppula left the Wings in 2013 to sign as an unrestricted free agent with general manager Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay.
Now Filppula has done it a second time, with Yzerman, who is now the GM in Detroit.
“It’s always important that you feel like the team wants you,” Filppula said Monday in a teleconference. “I know Steve from before, I had a good relationship with him.
“I’m real excited. Obviously you never know what is going to happen. I had a great time there the first time and I loved the team and city, everything was good that way. It was an easy decision to make, to come back, and I’m really excited for sure.”
Filppula played in 72 games with the New York Islanders last season, with 17 goals and 14 assists and a plus-19 rating.
Filppula gives the Wings versatility, playing either center or wing, and a veteran presence in an increasingly younger lineup.
Yzerman believes Filppula will play center in the current lineup, moving Andreas Athanasiou — who played center the final weeks of last season — back to his customary wing position.
“We had a hole in the middle, we felt, on our roster,” said Yzerman, naming Dylan Larkin, Frans Nielsen and Luke Glendening down the middle, and possibly Jacob de la Rose and Justin Abdelkader, if needed. “We have options but we were looking for someone that can (play center).
“We know he (Athanasiou) played at the end of the season at center, but his natural position is on the wing and it allows us to put him back on the wing. Fil is a good two-way centerman, he can win faceoffs, he can play in all situations.
“We thought we would plug a hole by bringing him in.”
Filppula had several teams interested but basically chose the Wings over returning to the Islanders — although this is a much different Wings team from the one he played on.
“The team is a lot different than it was back then, but there’s still a few guys I played with so that’ll be fun to see those guys again,” Filppula said. “It’s a lot younger roster now.
"(But) the league is really even. Every team plays well. You’re going to have a good chance against anybody. I’ve played against these guys for a while now. I feel like it’s been a tough team to play against and I have some familiar faces, too.”
The Wings also signed Swedish defenseman Patrik Nemeth (2 years, $6 million, $3 million cap hit), adding some stability to a somewhat unsettled position.
Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Green are defensemen who are returning from injury-plagued seasons, and all are on the last year of their contracts.
Also, Niklas Kronwall is a veteran defenseman debating whether to return for another season, or retire.
“He’s a strong, solid, defensive defenseman,” Yzerman said of Nemeth. “He kills penalties, defends well, a heavy body, and whether he’s playing with Mike Green or Filip Hronek, he’s going to be a real good partner for that type of player.
“It was important to bring in a defenseman that can play now on the left side and in the future as well.”
Nemeth, a 27-year-old from Sweden, played in 74 games last season in Colorado, with 10 points (one goal, nine assists), and was plus-5, with 53 penalty minutes.
In seven playoff games, Nemeth didn’t register a point, but was a plus-4.
Nemeth has played 250 games in the NHL, with four goals and 35 assists (39 points), is plus-24, with 134 penalty minutes.
Ironically, it was Nemeth who hit Dylan Larkin in a game in December, which led to Anthony Mantha sticking up for Larkin and getting into a fight with Nemeth, and Mantha suffered a broken hand.
The Wings signed goaltender Calvin Pickard to a two-year contract worth $1.4 million ($700,000 cap hit).
Pickard, 27, split last season between Philadelphia and Arizona.
Pickard will split the position with prospect Filip Larsson in Grand Rapids.
“We feel with the two goalies we have, if we were to have an injury, we feel the third goaltender position is very important,” Yzerman said. “We wanted to put a goaltender with some experience to partner with Larsson. A guy who is a good leader, high character and a good work ethic, and we believe he (Pickard) fits the bill.
“It gives us a little bit of security for us knowing we have him over the course of the two years. He has NHL experience and he can come up and play games if we need him to do that. He’s proven he can do that.”
Pickard was 4-2-2 in 11 appearances with the Flyers, with a 4.01 goals-against average and .863 save percentage. With Arizona, Pickard was 0-4-0 in six appearances, with a 3.60 GAA and .892 SVS.
For his NHL career, Pickard is 32-50-9 in 87 games, with a 2.93 GAA and .908 SVS.
A pair of Red Wings unrestricted free agents signed elsewhere.
Forward Martin Frk, who was waived late last season, signed with Los Angeles on a 1-year, two-way contract, while defenseman Luke Witkowski returned to Tampa on a 2-year, two-way contract.
Witkowski (Holland/Western Michigan) signed with the Wings, after having left Tampa two years ago.
Frk, 25, had one goal and five assists) in 30 games with the Wings last season. He has 12 goals (31 points) in 100 career NHL games.
Witkowski, 29, played in 34 games last season, with two assists.