Flyers made a good choice in Captain Claude

OF ALL the many blunders of the past three seasons, none was as obvious as this one: naming young Claude Giroux the Flyers' captain.

Of all the many blunders, this one most easily could have been repaired. The hiring of new coach Dave Hakstol, a franchise outsider fresh from the college ranks, gave second-year general manager Ron Hextall a free pass to replace Giroux. There were several candidates, chief among them steady winger Wayne Simmonds and new star Jake Voracek.

But Hextall kept Captain Claude.

That's because, of all the many blunders, this one has worked out fine.

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Entering his fourth season with the "C," Giroux has seen it all.

Despite adding little during his first two seasons with the "C," Giroux last season grew into the job. He now is perfectly positioned to follow Bobby Clarke as that rarest of hockey treasures: a charismatic scoring star equipped to be the face of the franchise until his Hall of Fame bona fides are complete.

In a perfect world, Giroux, 27 and entering his eighth season, would be getting the captaincy just now.

With the Flyers, things are never perfect.

It was January 2013, just before the lockout-shortened season began, a time of uncertainty.

Domineering head coach Peter Laviolette, who forced the trade of captain Mike Richards in Richards' prime, had lost bully-boy captain Chris Pronger to injury. Laviolette and hot-seat general manager Paul Holmgren considered the more veteran options and, with knowledge of those players' probable fates, gave the job to Giroux.

"I remember being called in and talking with Paul Holmgren. He was debating on whether to do it then or later," Giroux said. "What was I, 23? It's a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility. I liked that. I wanted to learn, even if it was the hard way. I know it was a lot of responsibility for a young player. But it's only made me better."

It took a while.

Giroux was an ascended star, the brightest spot among a darkening sky; a special-teams cornerstone and a transcendent scoring talent, but prone to scoring droughts and barely beyond his puppy stage. He was at a delicate stage. Nonetheless, he was handed the leadership reins of a franchise in a perpetual state of desperation to win another Stanley Cup in a city where winning is considered an entitlement, despite its alarming infrequency.

His first two campaigns as captain were positively painful. He oversaw a roster in flux. He endured overbearing coaches and a frantic front office.

The deft touch on the ice that made him one of the game's most fluid players was absent off the ice. Sometimes combative, often overcautious, he lacked the expertise to fill the role of spokesman and shepherd.

"When I got it, I put way too much pressure on myself. I was trying to control everything. I felt, 'I'm the captain. I've got to run the ship,' " Giroux said. "These days, it's not as big a deal as people think. When you're a young captain, you're going to make mistakes. I wouldn't take them back. I just go with my instincts. And I can't worry about how everybody else is playing. The first two years, I was doing that."

It's impossible to blame all of his subsequent difficulties on that mindset, but living life over an open flame certainly makes things tougher. Giroux' crucible was excruciating.

In 2013, Giroux endured a 21-game goal-less drought. Laviolette, occasionally delusional, declared Giroux to be the best player in the world during the 2012 playoffs. Lavy was then fired three games into the 2013-14 season amid accusations that the team, captained by Giroux, was epically unprepared.

Homegrown interim coach Craig Berube led the club to the playoffs, where Captain Claude scored only twice against the Rangers. Berube lost his job after last season, an injury-addled campaign made more difficult because of toothless, expensive forwards Vinny Lecavalier and R.J. Umberger.

They were the latest veterans Hextall watched Giroux incorporate.

"The hardest part when you step into captaincy is probably the older players. You get guys who've been around for 10 or 12 years, and all of a sudden, you're the lead guy," Hextall said. "That's the first hurdle you have to overcome. I think he's done a good job of that."

All the while, other issues swirled.

Last year, Giroux was arrested on Canada Day for repeatedly grabbing the backside of an Ottawa cop in a bar. No charges were filed, but the embarrassment was enormous.

Last winter, Giroux twice was snubbed by the Canadian Olympic hockey team: first, when the roster was announced, then when Canada' GM, Steve Yzerman, one of Giroux' idols, chose Martin St. Louis as an injury replacement over Giroux.

Worst, perhaps, the roster is always in flux.

Just before his captaincy started in 2013, Giroux watched the team trade talented young James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn. He then watched the team jettison his pals; Danny Briere, a buyout casualty; Scott Hartnell, traded for Umberger by Hextall, who replaced Holmgren as GM. He had seen them add Lecavalier, a big name for big money.

So, last season, it was left to Giroux to keep together a room in constant turmoil. Big defensemen Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen left at the last trade deadline. Umberger, Lecavalier and Luke Schenn were painful disappointments.

The Flyers missed the playoffs, but Giroux came of age.

"One of the things I'm proudest of, last year, is that while things didn't go the way we wanted, the team stayed together," Hextall said.

Giroux, he said, was the main reason.

"He has really matured," Hextall said.

Maturity matters because, at some point, every captain has to steady a listing ship.

As a kid, Giroux saw Yzerman, perhaps the most iconic captain in team sports history, lead a revolutionarily diverse group of Red Wings to three Stanley Cups.

These days, he admires 27-year-old Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who, like Giroux, is a Canadian playing in a blue-collar U.S. city with a rabid hockey base for a high-profile franchise.

"I think Yzerman just did everything right," Giroux said. "Jonathan Toews is the same way. I found out, you do that, it becomes contagious."

Briere, who once welcomed Giroux into his home to live with his family, now is retired. He often offers Giroux advice on the correct tone to take, the proper way to address an issue with a teammate or coach.

"He's really smart," Giroux said. "In time, I came to understand, it's not on just one guy. It's five or six guys, maybe the goalie, too. There's no need to put pressure on yourself because you're the captain."

Giroux has learned the value of inclusion and delegation.

"I mean, it's good to have a captain to have that one guy be accountable, but it's important that everybody has a role in leadership," he said. "It could be off the ice. At the restaurant. Planning the team party. Just hanging out. So it's not just on one or two guys all the time."

Giroux has found his groove despite the ghosts and icons who surround him. Clarke and Bill Barber, both former captains and Hall of Famers, still act as team advisers. The mythical toughness of Hextall and Holmgren, now the team president, is inescapable.

Still, somehow, the team belongs to Giroux.

"The captaincy has changed," said Hextall, who had six captains in three organizations from 1986-99; and had four captains as a Flyer. "It's not just one guy now. It's a leadership group. Here - Jake Voracek. Wayne Simmonds. Mark Streit. Nick Schultz."

Simmonds and Streit are assistant captains, part of the foundation Hextall was able to give Hakstol when he made him the first college coach to jump straight into the NHL in 33 years.

Replace Giroux?

"There was never any thought given to that," Hextall said, laughing.

Good thing.

When they created Captain Claude, it was the best mistake the Flyers made in years.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch