Claude Giroux had begun to acknowledge the inevitability of his situation years ago. It was the summer of 2018, just before the Flyers’ first day of training camp. Dave Hakstol had helped him revitalize his career the season before, moving him from center to left wing. With the position change, Giroux had gone from 58 points one year to 102 the next, and Sean Couturier had become the team’s top-line center.
In a perfect world for the Flyers, the move would have been a symbolic and actual torch-passing, an indication that the team had improved enough that Giroux was no longer its most important player and didn’t have to be.
“That makes a team stronger, when a young player comes in and he’s got a little bit more responsibility than the years before,” he said that day at the Flyers’ headquarters in Voorhees. “So roles might change, but not by a lot, and you’ve just got to know your role. Successful teams, they challenge themselves on those big roles.”
If you want a synopsis for Giroux’s star-crossed tenure in the NHL, you could do worse than this: The expectations were too high and the challengers were too few.
His two months with the Florida Panthers, after the Flyers traded him there in late March, only reconfirmed what anyone who evaluated him with any objectivity already had concluded: He has been a very good player, not a consistently great one. After scoring 18 goals and 42 points in 57 games for a terrible Flyers team, he had 23 points in 18 games for the highest-scoring club in the league. He had two spectacular games in Florida’s first-round series against the Capitals — collecting two goals and five points in the Panthers’ clinching victories in Games 5 and 6 — then had one assist in four games as the Tampa Bay Lightning swept Florida in the conference semifinals.
Giroux has always been a kaleidoscope to those who have followed his career closely: What you see depends on the angle from which you’re looking at him. Did he deserve mention with and comparison to the league’s clear-cut superstars — names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, and Steven Stamkos? Was he the clutch player who dominated the Penguins throughout that 2012 first-round series, who showed what he could do — with the 2010 Flyers and this season’s Panthers — when he had some top-end talent around him? What about his final 29 playoff games with the Flyers, when he had just two goals and 12 points? What about the three seasons of declining production — 2014 to 2017 — not long after he signed an eight-year, $66.2 million extension? Is he great? Really good? Overrated? Underappreciated? Overpaid? Those questions tailed him throughout his time here.
Now that Giroux is 34 and has just completed his 15th NHL season, now that he is a supporting player on a team capable of winning a Stanley Cup instead of the centerpiece of a team that wasn’t, the judgments of him can be more measured. He no longer is at the age or the stage of his career that anyone should expect him to carry a club, even one as talented and deep as the Panthers, through the regular season or a playoff series. But then, that’s what made assessing Giroux and his overall performance for the Flyers so difficult.
Their biggest problem during his career with them was that, for most of it, he was their best player, and you can view that fact from opposite perspectives. On the one hand, for all the years and money and salary-cap space that they invested in Giroux, the Flyers and their fans had a right to demand that he be a dominant player at all times, and he was not that. On the other, the Flyers’ player personnel and scouting staffs had ample opportunity to gather enough talent around Giroux to allow him to flourish in a lesser role, to have someone supplant him in the roster hierarchy and have the team improve for it. And with the exception of a year or two from Couturier, no one did.
Those debates aren’t quite as fevered anymore, nor should they be. The Flyers, the media that cover them regularly, and the fans who follow them closely spent Giroux’s final weeks with the organization feting him as if he were a monarch stepping down from his throne. But his future likely will come down to a decision that he’ll make without emotion, that he’ll calculate with cold rationality. He will be a free agent this offseason, and he wants to win a Stanley Cup.
The truth for Claude Giroux now, one about which there’s no mystery or argument, is that he will not be the primary reason that his team hoists the Cup, and sentiment won’t win him one, either. Circumstances will.