The smiles gave them away. Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier tried hard to tout the party line about finally being paired on a line together. Tried to couch it as an experiment, tried to act noncommittal, tried really, really hard to not look past today, or tomorrow and to two weeks from now, when the center-heavy Flyers open up their 2017-18 season in San Jose.
Suffice to say they did a much better job achieving their goals on the ice than off it. On the ice, the line — with Couturier centering Giroux on the left and Jake Voracek on the right — was dynamic, crowding the perch above the ice that connects to the Flyers offices with, well, higher-ups.
“It was actually a lot of fun,’’ Giroux said after Tuesday’s morning session in Voorhees. “It’s not like I’m against it. Or that I’m not happy with it. If it makes the team better and we have a lot of centermen, I’m up for the idea for sure.”
“It was definitely fun out there,” Couturier said. “Had a lot of good plays and hopefully we can build on that and make it a thing this year.”
And what a thing it could be. Giroux has not played on the wing since his days in juniors and the AHL, and even then it was on the right side, not the left. Couturier has, in his mind anyway, been somewhat pigeonholed as a defensive forward ever since that playoff in his rookie season when he so effectively shut down Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin.
Each has been paired with a smorgasbord of teammates, some still here, some long gone, but never with each other except for “the little odd shift we had here and there,” said Couturier. “We seemed to create something and get scoring chances.”
Said Voracek, “If we’re going to play a game, I’m very excited about it.”
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol was noncommittal about whether Giroux would be Couturier’s wing man when the Flyers play two split squad games against the Islanders on Wednesday. But he also made it clear this was no whim, that a lot of thought was put into it. You didn’t have to be a coach or even on that crowded perch to understand why. They were the stars of an early Tuesday session filled with breakouts and offensive zone play.
“Pretty effective day for that group,” deadpanned the coach.
“I shouldn’t talk about it that much because I may not see it again,” said Giroux. “But if I do, I am pretty excited to see what could happen.”
Would he be surprised if that was his line on Oct. 4?
“I would not be surprised,” he said.
This suggests that the conversation between the coach and the captain Monday night was not conducted lightly. Giroux, who will turn 30 this season, has seen his point totals decline in each of the last three seasons, a variety of injuries limiting both his in-season performance and his offseason conditioning. He is coming off a summer in which he was not only able to train without restriction but with an altered type of training that he has spoken excitedly about.
The Flyers, of course, have a glut at the center position, and are looking for creative ways to go forward with their best forwards. Giroux’s willingness and enthusiasm in moving over to the wing induced Hakstol to move Jori Lehtera back to center after a few practices with him on the wing. It also seems to at least imply that Nolan Patrick will not be heading back to his junior team anytime soon, although Hakstol cautioned that we should not “connect the dots.”
In saying, “I’ve thought a lot about this,” Giroux likened his switch to the interchangeability of San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton over the years. Two years ago, when the Sharks made their run to the finals, their first line actually consisted of three natural centers — Thornton, Pavelski, and Tomas Hertl, creating faceoff advantages and matchup nightmares.
For Couturier, pairing with Giroux and Voracek might, at age 24 release an offensive game he insists has been subjugated over the years for the good of the team. “They always remember that first year with Malkin and see me as a shutdown guy,” he said. “But I want to be more of a 200-foot guy who can play on both ends and help as much offensively. Be one of the go-to guys.”
Someone like Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, he said. Or Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles.
“They’re not flashy skill guys, but they get the job done on both ends of the ice,” said Couturier. “That’s what I want to model my game after.”