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Red Wings' Valtteri Filppula slower but wiser as he nears 1,000th NHL game

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

New York – So, what does it mean for Valtteri Filppula to reach the 1,000-NHL game milestone Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena?

Filppula, ever the straight-forward and bottom-line type of guy, never flinched.

Valtteri Filppula

“It means I’m getting older,” said Filppula, 35, who originally joined the Wings during the 2005-06 season after being a third-round draft pick in 2002. “Being able to stay healthy, that’s the good thing. I’ve been able to play for a while and in a great league. I’m proud of that.

“That first game, you’re thinking hopefully to get a few more games. Now, 15 years later, it’s still good to be able to play, but you don’t really think about that. I haven’t thought about it (1,000 games) until this season, that I’m getting pretty close.

“It’s nice, I’m excited about it, but I hope it would be under better circumstances with the team doing better. But it’s something positive for the year.”

Filppula remembers that first game in the NHL, on Dec. 15, 2005, becoming the first Finnish player to play for the Wings.

“I do remember, all one minute and 20 seconds of it,” said Filppula of his NHL debut. “We played in Florida and I got called up with a dads’ trip going on. I didn’t play much but it was obviously exciting.”

The Wings were coached by Mike Babcock, who coached Filppula until the forward signed a free-agent contract with Tampa (whose general manager was Steve Yzerman at the time) in the summer of 2013.

Filppula credits Babcock with some key knowledge, which Filppula has carried throughout his career.

“You need to be good defensively,” Filppula said. “I had quite a few meetings about, ‘I can’t trust to keep you out there,’ and it took a while, but it made me a better player.”

Filppula went from the Wings to Tampa, then Philadelphia, and the New York Islanders, before re-signing with the Wings in July, as Yzerman brought back the veteran forward on a two-year contract worth $6 million ($3 million cap hit).

“It’s great that it happened that way,” said Filppula of returning to the organization that drafted him. “I didn’t really plan on coming back. I didn’t know if it was going to happen. I left on good terms, so this summer, when the opportunity was there to come back, I was really excited about it.”

Jeff Blashill was an assistant under Babcock during the 2011-12 season when Filppula was still in his first turn with the Wings.

“I was really impressed with so much about him back then,” Blashill said. “He’s a great pro, works extremely hard and has a really good skill set, probably an underrated skill set.

“In coming back (to Detroit), he’s done an excellent job of being a role model for our guys. It’s certainly important for anything in life, but in the situation we’re in, to have a great model for guys to look up to and see how they do it.

“He’s a very smart player and I’ve been able to pick his brain and get his opinion, and the players out there are doing it and he’s done it for a long time, getting to 1,000 games.”

Blashill says the 1,000-game milestone is especially meaningful these days, with competition for jobs so fierce and speed becoming such a necessary ingredient.

“It’s an achievement,” Blashill said. “Some guys get into the league earlier, but it’s harder to stay as long now, and the game is so fast. If you lose a step it can be real hard.

“The guys who seem to keep going and be productive are the guys with good brains – and he has a real good brain. So even though he doesn’t skate quite as fast as he used to, he has a real good brain, and it’s a heck of an achievement.”

Ice chips

Goaltender Jonathan Bernier (lower body) and forward Andreas Athanasiou (undisclosed) both continue to progress, with Bernier possibly being ready to play Saturday against the Rangers. Athansaiou could be ready either Saturday, or Monday against Philadelphia.

… Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was expected to return to the lineup Friday for the first time since breaking his nose Dec. 15 against Los Angeles. Ericsson appeared to be taking the place of Madison Bowey in the lineup, judging from the morning skate.

Rangers at Red Wings

Faceoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena

TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM

Outlook: The teams play the back end of their home-and-home set coming out of the All-Star break. … This will be the Rangers’ lone trip into Detroit this season. … D Jacob Trouba (Rochester Adams/Michigan) has seven goals (23 points) for the Rangers.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan