The Flyers have a $66.2 million question

Five years ago, Claude Giroux was called the "best player in the world" by a euphoric Peter Laviolette, then the Flyers coach.

Three years ago, the speedy center finished third in the voting for the league's MVP.

This season, he wasn't even the best player on his team.

Giroux, 29, managed just 14 goals - nine at even-strength - and 58 points, along with a minus-15 rating.

It was his lowest goal output in any full season in his superb career, and offseason hip and abdominal surgeries played a role.

"When you try to do something and you can't do it - your mind wants to do something, but your body doesn't do it - it's frustrating," Giroux said.

The three-time all-star called his season "up and down like our team, and it's got to be better, and it will."

Was his disappointing production an anomaly caused by his slow medical recovery? Or is Giroux, whose point production has dropped in each of the last four seasons (86, 73, 67, 58), fading into a good-but-not-elite player because of the wear and tear his 5-foot-11, 186-pound frame has absorbed in his nine seasons?

"I don't think 'G' had a great year, but he's not on the decline," general manager Ron Hextall insisted at his season-ending news conference Thursday, ignoring the numbers. "I know this: I'll be shocked next year if you guys don't ask me in January how has 'G' turned this around? He's a very driven athlete. Very driven. I know he's going to train hard this year. We're going to make some minor tweaks in how he trains. He trains hard, but can he train smarter? Yeah. That's an area we're going to work on this summer, to have our guys train hard but put a few more wrinkles in."

A prominent NHL scout, however, said Giroux is no longer among the league's elite. "But he's still a pretty good hockey player," the scout said. "Every player has faults, and there's a little bit of disappointment in his game. But you have to be careful because if you have a guy scoring 60, 70 points in your lineup, he's pretty darn valuable. He's one of the best power-play guys in the league, and that's a major asset. So even if he's not scoring a ton at even strength, you still need a strong power play. Without a good power play, the Flyers probably have 10 points less.

"In today's game, the power play is extremely important."

Giroux, who in 2013 signed an eight-year, $66.2 million extension, finished fourth in the NHL with 31 power-play points. But he collected just 27 even-strength points. Overall, his 58 points placed him tied for 46th in the NHL.

Shaken confidence

Giroux's season is perplexing because he seemed to have good "jump" during the Flyers' 10-game winning streak that stretched to Dec. 14. During those 10 games, he had five goals and 12 points and was plus-10.

In the next two-plus month, though, he didn't look like himself. His trademark offensive creativity was missing. His backchecking was weak, his confidence was shaken.

He took his struggles - and the Flyers' losses - home with him. No one on the team is harder on himself.

"I take it personally," he said.

Late in the season, he seemed to regain his form. The speed that was absent suddenly reappeared.

"He has his mojo back," Hextall said in March.

Giroux, who had the lowest shooting percentage of his career (7 percent), said his hip bothered him at different times during the season, but he didn't want to use it as an alibi for his drop-off.

"It's not about excuses. It's about making it happen," he said. "I'm frustrated at myself and how I played, but I'm not going to back down. I'm not going to pout about it. . . . At the end of the day, it's about going back to work and getting healthy and feeling that excitement again and being the player I can be.

"I wasn't at my best. I didn't play how I wanted to play, and when that happens I'm not making my linemates any better. Obviously, I take responsibility for not being able to help my linemates."

It also didn't help that Giroux had a rotating list of left wingers on his line. Michael Raffl was used the most of his seven left wingers, but Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, Travis Konecny, Taylor Leier, Jordan Weal, and Nick Cousins were also next to him on that side.

"It happens," said Giroux, who scored a career-high 93 points in 2011-12 while playing primarily on a line with Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, big wingers who created time and space for the diminutive center. "I think it's like that with every team. When the line kind of dips down a little bit, you get a couple guys back on your line, and you have that excitement, the change of excitement. Obviously you want to play 82 games with the same guys, but that's just not going to happen."

Finding a top-line left winger, preferably someone with size, would seem to be on Hextall's offseason wish list.

No other choice

Jake Voracek can sympathize with Giroux's return from a major injury.

"It's tough," the Flyers right winger said. "When you have that hip surgery he had last year you don't know what to expect, how your body's going to react to it, especially on the ice and when you're playing and it bothers you. I remember I got hurt last year with my foot, and when I got back it was one good game, two bad games because you couldn't skate. The body won't let you, and it changes everything because the timing is off, the passing is off, you're not in the places that you normally are, and it's tough to deal with.

"You can lose the timing pretty quickly as well. So when you mix everything together, it's not easy to deal with, but you have no other choice but to do it."

Second-year defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere had basically the same surgeries as Giroux last May. But the player they call "Ghost" said he had no problems from the operation and no limitations.

"We all have different bodies and react differently," Gostisbehere said.

Giroux's teammates knew their captain wasn't himself, but they appreciated his effort.

"Maybe he wasn't 100 percent, but he's a warrior," right winger Wayne Simmonds said. "He's going to battle for the guys. He's our captain. He's our leader. He's not going to leave us to hang no matter how he feels."

Giroux has decided to play for Team Canada in the IIHF World Championships - Simmonds is one of his teammates, and Hextall is the squad's general manager - and he will then take a break.

"He's going to get some time to get some rest, get some training," Simmonds said. "He'll come back healthy. Just the type of player and the type of competitor he is, he'll be back 100 percent."

Giroux is eager to show that this season was a fluke, that he can regain his all-star form. On a team that struggled mightily for offense, especially in the last 50 games, that's desperately needed.

"You've got to keep working on your game, get stronger and faster," said Giroux, who finished 10th in the NHL with a 55.9 percent success rate in faceoffs. "I'm very excited to have a whole summer to work out and really do what I want to do."

scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull www.philly.com/flyersblog

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