For Claude Giroux, Groundhog Day occurs each year in April, not February. That’s when he looks up and sees the signs of spring in 16 playoff-bound cities, while he and his Flyers teammates brace for another six months of cold, unforgiving reality.
“It’s been disappointing every year,” he said last week, as the team he captains again emptied its belongings from the Skate Zone in Voorhees and made plans for yet another longer-than-expected summer.
“It’s tough. It gets to you.”
He is 31, with a new wife and with a baby on the way, so there are some important things to take his mind off it. But for Flyers fans, the latest motion-sickness-inducing season has really gotten to them, too, their frustration boiling all over social media and radio talk shows, with vows to never love or even see Claude and the boys again.
A new coach and a free-agent signing or two over the summer are sure to soften that stance. What’s not so sure, still, is why this team, with a talented core group that management deemed worthy to keep while rebuilding, has not cured the recurring ills that have frustrated its following — particularly its knack in falling behind early.
Fifty times this season, the Flyers allowed the game’s first goal. Thirty two times, the opponent scored the next one as well.
“We need to play as a team,’” Giroux said. “I feel like we’ve done that maybe not enough. I feel like it takes us a lot to realize we’re a better team than the team that we’re playing. When we started believing that we were a good team, we went on a run. We were a dangerous team, and we were playing great. … It was too late.’”
Again. Giroux has been a Flyer for 12 seasons, with three years remaining on a deal that pays him $8.25 million annually. Made captain in 2013, he has been the team’s best player in the seasons in which he has played healthy, recently answering doubts about his mettle and longevity after an injury-affected 2016-17 season by accumulating 187 points and a combined plus-37 in the ensuing two years.
Masked in that, though, is this: Over the final 10 games of this season, when the Flyers’ margin of error was nil, he was minus-9.
Eight of those games ended in losses.
In a telling paradox to Giroux’s two-season net effect, the Flyers allowed 37 more goals than they scored this season. And through four coaches, the only consistency under Giroux’s captaincy has been this team’s inconsistency, leading to understandable scrutiny of the player’s effect on his team beyond the actual numbers.
Is he a leader? To a man, his teammates say yes, that his play on the ice is all the leadership required.
“You look at some of the greatest leaders like Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic,” Sean Couturier said. “They weren’t really guys that spoke out or yelled. They led by example and made sure that they were ready. Guys almost have to follow them.”
The choice of Yzerman is interesting. Named a captain at 21, Yzerman was seven years into his career before Scotty Bowman took over as Detroit’s head coach in 1993. The two clashed at first under Bowman’s defensive-minded coaching style, and the team once even mulled trading him to Ottawa. When the Red Wings were swept by New Jersey in the 1995 Cup Final, Yzerman’s leadership was again questioned and rumors surfaced again that he was on the trading block, this time to Montreal.
Only the most frustrated of Flyers fans have suggested doing that with Giroux. When Chuck Fletcher took over as Flyers general manager in December, he quickly asserted that Giroux was, in fact, the only player for whom he would not listen to offers before the trade deadline. Couturier’s comments about the two Cup-winning captains was in response to a question about his own leadership responsibilities, arguing that he doesn’t need to be any more rah-rah than Giroux is.
“It’s kind of the way I see myself, instead of being a guy that yells or tells guys what to do,” Couturier said. “I just try to lead by example.”
Two thoughts then: Does anyone on this team fit that in-your-face role? And, is a vocal leader really what’s needed here?
The Flyers’ starts this season and in past ones would seem to suggest they do. When Wayne Simmonds was an All-Star-caliber player for the Flyers, he was more willing to be out front with criticism than he was once he went through his catalog of injuries. And yet even back then, fragile was a word that came up too often when describing the team.
Giroux will turn 32 in the middle of the next season. He said he expects to play until he’s 40, but the candle is burning and the kids are coming. Yzerman was about his age when he won his first Cup.
Giroux still has time to make his stamp as this team’s captain.