Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk was in a locker room in Ottawa last weekend trying to explain what makes Claude Giroux tick as a leader.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing, but you can tell there are certain people that when you’re down by a goal or whatever it might be, he wants the puck on his stick and he wants to be the guy to make the play," JVR said. "That’s the way that he leads. He wants to go out there and show it in those big moments.”
Before dismissing this as simple platitudes spoken by one teammate about another, let’s add some context from a few months ago.
The Flyers hired Alain Vigneault in April, a week or so after another lost season. They pulled the plug on the Dave Hakstol experiment four months earlier. The Flyers played better under interim Scott Gordon, but general manager Chuck Fletcher couldn’t resist the chance to bring in a proven NHL coach with a knack for quick turnarounds.
Life also was changing for Giroux, who has been a Flyers captain longer than anyone in the last 30 years. Each spring that passes without a postseason appearance is another lost opportunity. Giroux, who will be 32 in January, was on the verge of becoming a father for the first time. He’s no longer that feisty little kid who used to live at Danny Briere’s house and horse around with his children.
Time is slipping away and Giroux, who has two seasons left after this one on his current contract, is more determined than ever.
“When I met him the first time, it was here in Ottawa this past summer, he talked to me about his legacy,” Vigneault said. “He didn’t like his legacy with the Flyers. He wants to make sure he leaves a legacy where the team had won.”
The Flyers are in a rut where they haven’t won a playoff series in seven years, the longest streak in franchise history. Been there three times in Giroux’s captaincy, only to lose quickly to the Rangers (2014), Capitals (2016) and Penguins (2018). Missed them the other four.
That 2014 Rangers team was Vigneault’s first in New York. He took them all the way to the Cup Finals before losing to Los Angeles. Vigneault also hears the theme song to “60 Minutes” churning up each spring. He is one of only two head coaches in the top 14 in postseason wins never to lift hockey’s holy chalice. Pat Quinn is the other.
“[Giroux] and I hit it off right away by him telling me that he wants to win and that he will do whatever it takes to win," Vigneault said. “Right off the hop, he was very open -- maybe because my track record is missing the Stanley Cup.”
Mike Richards was the captain when the Flyers went to the Finals in 2010. Giroux, had 21 points in 23 postseason games. He was 22 years old. Surely there would be other deep postseason runs. Instead, tick, tick, tick.
Giroux is in the top-5 in Flyers history in games played, points and assists. He’s been an All-Star six times and the team’s MVP five times. The reason the Flyers haven’t had any playoff success in his tenure isn’t his fault. But that doesn’t make those long summers any less grinding, especially when he sees a team like the St. Louis Blues go from last place in January to a Stanley Cup parade in June.
Perhaps that’s why he was so blunt with Vigneault.
“He’s coached a lot of great teams and we have a lot of trust in him,” Giroux said. “He’s very organized. When the game starts, we know what we have to do.”
Once a week, Giroux will make a highlight-reel play, whether it’s a pass from his knees or a stick-handling move that undresses a defender. But he also does the little things that never get on ESPN. He’s a dedicated back-checker and is second in the NHL in winning faceoffs. He’s been in the top five in that stat in five of the last six seasons.
“I can’t imagine it’s easy [being captain]. First and foremost, you want to have your game in a good place. But then there are certain things like having a good feel on the pulse of the team and having the interaction with coaches and management. There are lots of different balls you have to juggle as the captain. And then you have younger guys coming in and their eyes are all on you to be the example for what it takes to be a productive player. But he handles that well.”
“I try not to practice it too much. You don’t want to overthink it. You want to let your instincts take over,” he said. “But you’re going to have games where you lose a faceoff, but it hits the [linesman’s] skate and goes to your side. Or vice-versa. You have nights where faceoffs aren’t going to go well. One thing is to not overthink it. But you want to start every play with the puck, for sure.”
Giroux wins nearly 61 percent of his faceoffs, which is a fantastic rate given that only 12 players are above 55 percent. When the Flyers are shorthanded, Giroux comes away with the puck 67 percent of the time.
Need a little bit of bulldog in you to win 61 percent of your faceoffs. But it also takes help from teammates, which brings us to what’s going on this season.
The addition of Kevin Hayes and Matt Niskanen, the steady improvement of Travis Konecy and Carter Hart and the energy brought by the rookies has Giroux hopeful for the second half. This is the best record (21-11-5) the Flyers have had at Christmas since Giroux became captain, yet it’s still only good for only third place in the loaded Metropolitan Division.
They are 13-2-4 at the Wells Fargo Center, the league’s second-best home record after Boston.
“In the past couple of years, it’s always been we need to get hot [after Christmas] to get in," Giroux said. “Obviously, we’re in a better position than the last few years. For us, it’s to just keep going. Every game is huge for us and we’re having fun doing it.”
Teammates say that Giroux picks his spots to raise his concerns.
“He leads by example,” said Jake Voracek, who has played more than 600 games with Giroux. " I think if things do not go well, he’s the first to admit it. He’s real hard on himself and that sets an example for the other guys to never be too satisfied with yourself.
“He doesn’t have much patience. He’s always trying to find a solution as soon as possible. If things go wrong, he’s pissed at himself. He’s visibly pissed and upset with himself that he could be better. That’s what makes him a great hockey player. He’s never satisfied.”
Last season, the Flyers were 29th out of 31 in goals against per team. They used eight goalies and some of their talented young defensemen regressed. This season, they are 9th in team defense. But neither the 21 wins nor the improvement on the blueline are the headline from the first half of the season.
Injuries are part of the game. Cancer is not. Or at least it’s not supposed to be.
Giroux’s voice cracks when he talks about Oskar Lindblom, his 23-year-old teammate who’s season ended when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. In the first home game following Lindblom’s diagnosis, Giroux said the team’s victory and "every win for the rest of the season is going to be for him.”
When you are the captain of the team, personal reflection in difficult times often takes a back seat to the needs of the locker room. The Flyers have had six players make their NHL debuts this season (tied with Columbus for most in the NHL). There are youngsters on this team who had trouble digesting the news of what was happening to their teammate.
“They were obviously devastated when we heard about Oskar,” Vigneault said. “G was one of the first guys to bring everybody together. He was right there with Oskar that first night when we found out about it. I’ve got noting but respect for Claude Giroux. He’s a good leader. He’s what Philly should want and -- in my mind -- what it needs.”
10 questions with Claude Giroux
What’s Christmas going to be like?
Well, it’s going to be good to have a little time off and let the body recover. And then go right back at it after Christmas.
How about at home?
It’s going to be a big Christmas for our son (Gavin). I don’t know if he’s going to remember it, but we are. Taking pictures and videos, it’s going to be fun for sure.
Is Gavin named after anyone?
No. We just decided we liked the name.
» NHL Network video: Claude and Ryanne Giroux take Gavin for a walk in Center City
More than any sport, an NHL locker room has players from all around the world with all different backgrounds. Does that make it difficult to jell?
It doesn’t matter where you’re from, guys all get on the same page. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, sometimes your best friend could be Swedish or your best friend could be American. It’s just how things are.
Who’s your best friend?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It would be hard to pick just one. I’m close with a few guys.
It’s natural to think that you’d be closest with Jake Voracek and Sean Couturier since you’ve been teammates with them the longest. Is that the case?
When you play a lot of years with the same person, I think you have a relationship that you just build on. Jake and Coots, obviously, they’ve been here a long time.
What’s the hardest part of being an NHL captain?
I don’t know. To be honest, whether you’re the captain, the assistant captain or you don’t have a letter, if you’re a leader, you’re just going to lead. The best thing you can do as a leader is be yourself.
Who do you go to during trying times?
In the past, I’ve had a lot of conversations with (Paul Holmgren). We talked a lot. You always have the coaches and you have your teammates. Your teammates are always there for you – Coots, Jake, guys who have been here a long time. You talk to them a lot.
Who were your mentors?
I lived with Danny. He was able to help me with a lot of things. Sometimes it’s not really a conversation, it’s just looking at what they’re doing and how [they’re handling] stuff.
What are you looking forward to the most during Christmas week?
When you go home and you have a baby son in the room, it changes a lot of things. The perspective of it. It’s been a lot of fun this year. I’m very excited for (the future).