Before the season, captain Claude Giroux heard all the whispers: His career was on the downswing. He was overpaid and wasn’t a good leader. If the Flyers could get some quality young prospects in a trade, it was time to deal him.
More than three months later, the anti-Giroux whispers that filled the Twitterverse have changed. Emphatically.
Not only is Giroux, who recently turned 30, proving the doubters wrong, but he is having one of the best seasons of his brilliant 10-year career.
And doing it while learning a new position, left wing.
On Sunday in Tampa, Fla., Giroux will appear in his fifth All-Star Game. He has 14 goals and 43 assists and is on pace for a career-high 95 points. He has taken center Sean Couturier under his wing (pun intended) and helped him have a career year.
It has been a season of redemption, a season that has Giroux back among the NHL elite.
“When a lot of people doubt you, you kind of try to figure out what you can do better and how you can be the best player you can be,” Giroux said the other day. “I wanted to have a better year this year and it’s definitely been good, but I still think I can get better in a lot of areas.”
Giroux’s 14-goal, 58-point nightmare of a season (for him) in 2016-17, it turns out, was because it took him a long time to regain his quickness from hip and abdominal surgeries — .and had little do to with his age starting a downward spiral.
“You could tell he was still trying to find himself,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said of Giroux’s struggles the season after his surgeries. “He was battling and you could tell he was hurt. I’ve had that surgery and I know what it feels like. It’s not a fun recovery and it really does take a while to feel yourself again. He’s the type of guy who puts a lot on himself, a lot of pressure. He was working as hard as he could out there and doing what he could, but there’s a limit. Obviously he had a great off-season and he came in ready to roll this year.”
‘I know a lot more now’
With age, Giroux has become smarter and learned to take care of his body more during and after the season than he did during his earlier years.
“I know a lot more now than when I was younger,” said Giroux, who is second in the NHL with 43 assists, tied for fifth with 57 points, and third in the faceoff circle (58 percent) among players with at least 500 draws. “You just learn from on-ice workouts during the season and you see the guys who play for a long time and how they take care of their body off the ice and make sure they recover well. Maybe that’s something I wasn’t doing very well when I was younger. When you’re 20 years old, you think you’re invincible and you’re going to be healthy for your whole career. You learn from it.”
Two summers ago, Giroux wasn’t able to work out as much because he was recovering from May 17 surgeries to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, along with an abdominal tear. He rushed back to play for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey.
Last summer, with the surgeries behind him, he had a much more productive workout schedule and hired skating and skill coaches in Ottawa for the first time in his career. He got into the weight room and did lots of on-ice work.
“I just went back to the basics, trying to build muscle again because the summer before I didn’t have the summer to do that,” he said.
As far as those who doubted his leadership, well, how many teams have a career center who unselfishly agreed to move to left wing to accommodate an unproven center on the top line? Giroux did that and steered Couturier toward a breakout season.
And how many teams can endure a 10-game losing streak – as the Flyers did this season – and rebound to become one of the NHL’s best teams over the last seven weeks?
There was no finger-pointing during the skid. No division among the players. Giroux held some meetings, reminded his teammates they weren’t playing terribly, and said they would get stronger for enduring things.
In short, he kept the team together.
“That’s crucial that you all stick together during those kind of stretches because sometimes they can divide a room and ruin your season,” said MacDonald, one of the team’s alternate captains. “He didn’t let that happen.”
Production equals empowerment
Coach Dave Hakstol said Giroux’s increased production has made him a better leader.
“When you’re in a leadership role, to be speaking from a position of real strength and confidence — when you know your game is real good — I think it empowers you to even a greater level as a leader,” he said. “Without a doubt, that’s the case this year. Don’t get me wrong. ‘G’ was a real good leader for us last year; he put our team first all the time. In any of the things he was going through, any of his ups and downs, he kept those within, so he continued to be a real strong leader on the outside.
“But I think inherently, when your game is good and you feel good about your production, it empowers you more as a leader.”
The fact Giroux was hurting physically last year and “not able to make a difference and help push a game the ….way you want to on a regular basis, that can become a pretty heavy weight, and we probably saw some of that last year in ‘G.’ ” Hakstol said.
A year ago, the Flyers became the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs during a season in which they had a 10-game winning streak. Now they have put themselves back in a playoff spot during a season in which they had a 10-game losing streak.
It can be a humbling game.
“There’s so much parity in the league these days that you really can’t afford to take any nights off,” MacDonald said. “You just have to be mentally sharp and ready to go.”
And have a captain, a healthy team-first captain, to show them the way.