"This year, he's really spread his wings."
— Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, on Claude Giroux
Flyers center Claude Giroux has spread his wings, all right. Spread them from Anaheim to South Florida and all stops in between.
One year after a breakout season in which he earned his first all-star spot, the 23-year-old Giroux is a legitimate MVP candidate. The award has been won by just two Flyers - Bobby Clarke (three times) and Eric Lindros in 1994-95.
And with the Pittsburgh Penguins coming into the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night, it's not a stretch to wonder if the game will match two of the NHL's best players: the incomparable Sidney Crosby and the fast-rising Giroux.
Flyers forward Max Talbot has played with Crosby, the 2006-07 winner of the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP, and Giroux. Is it too early put Giroux at Crosby's level?
"No, he's been the best in the league since the beginning of the year," Talbot said the other day.
Like Crosby, who is generally regarded as being to the NHL what George Clooney is to the movie industry, Giroux excels at both ends of the ice.
"The way they battle and play with passion is something I can see in their eyes," Talbot said. "They definitely have the [same] intensity. Defensively, they battle."
"There are similarities" between Crosby and Giroux, said former Flyer Bill Barber, a Hall of Famer who is now a scouting consultant with the club. "Sid is a phenomenal player. I know for a fact that he works harder than all of the other players in practice - and he has a [Stanley Cup] ring to prove it."
Barber said Crosby, 24, and Giroux "both have great vision" and can see things on the ice that most players can't. "And you can see how much they both just enjoy playing the game."
Barber, a left winger who scored 420 goals in his career and later coached the Flyers for 11/2 seasons, said Giroux is uncanny with the accuracy of his shot and the way he sets up a teammate.
"He sees openings that other players don't," he said. "If there's any winger that doesn't want to play with Claude, there's something wrong with him."
Heading into Tuesday, Giroux had 15 goals and 17 assists in 25 games and was tied for second in the NHL with 32 points. He is on pace for 49 goals and 105 points. That's a lot of "Gi-rewwwwwwwww"; chants at the Wells Fargo Center.
"He's a very rare player in that he scores a lot of goals as a centerman," Barber said. "Usually, the scorers are on the wings, and the centers feed them. But he's a very unique player. Give the Flyers credit for seeing that and drafting him when they did."
Giroux's projected scoring totals would be eye-popping when you consider that in the Flyers' history, just five players have reached 100 points in a season: Bobby Clarke (three times), Rick MacLeish, Barber, Mark Recchi (twice), and Eric Lindros. Six Flyers have reached 50 goals: MacLeish, Reggie Leach (twice), Barber, Tim Kerr (four times), Recchi, and John LeClair (three times).
The six Flyers who reached 50 goals did it a combined 12 times. Eleven of the times it was done by wingers. MacLeish was the only center.
Giroux, whose shot release appears much quicker this season, is among the league leaders with a 20 percent shooting percentage, connecting on 15 of his 75 shots. He is a threat to become the first Flyer to ever win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top point scorer.
"It's a great honor to be up there, but it's not just me out there; it's Jags and Hartsy," he said, referring to linemates Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell. "When you play with two good players, obviously you're going to get the puck a lot in the slot, and I think it's important that you're ready for it. Jags talks to me a lot about that."
Now in his fourth NHL season, Giroux plays in all situations - even-strength, power play, penalty kill - and he leads Flyers forwards in average time on ice at nearly 22 minutes per game.
Twenty-two hard minutes.
"What really impresses me about Claude is that he fights for everything out there," Laviolette said. "I don't know if it's mean or not, but it has been consistent all year. Right now he is fighting for every piece of ice he can get, every puck battle."
A year ago, Giroux had a coming-of-age season. He finished with 25 goals - but just nine in his last 39 games - and a team-high 76 points. His point and goal totals rose in each of his first three seasons.
And to think that when the Flyers selected him in the first round (22d overall) in the 2006 draft, then-general manager Bobby Clarke momentarily forgot his name as he stood at the podium.
"It didn't bother me," said Giroux, who had three straight seasons of 100-plus points when he played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. "I actually thought it was pretty funny.
Most of his teammates call him, simply, "G." As in goal. Jagr, one of his linemates, calls him "Little Mario Lemieux" and says he never thought he would get to play with a player of Giroux's caliber at this stage of his career.
But some still get stumped by his name.
On Saturday night in Glendale, Ariz., after Giroux scored another breathtaking goal, a Phoenix reporter was asking Flyers center Danny Briere about his shifty teammate, wanting to know his opinion of "Ger-rucks," rhyming it with shucks.
Giroux shrugs it off and smiles. He is quiet and soft-spoken - he despises public speaking - but has a sharp wit ("I guess 39 is the new 20," he said about Jagr) and a playful personality. Witness when he dyed his mustache black last month, which didn't exactly match his strawberry-blonde hair - and made him look like he belonged in a Saturday Night Live skit.
On the ice, however, he is all business.
"It shouldn't surprise anybody that he is where he is," Laviolette said. "He's skilled and talented, but I really think his success comes from the fact he is a tremendous competitor. . . . The way he competes makes him special."
Special enough to be mentioned with a hockey icon like Crosby. Special enough that the Philadelphia Sportswriters Association will honor him as Philly's pro athlete of the year at its 108th annual banquet on Jan. 30 in Cherry Hill.
Special enough that most hockey followers not only know his name, but say it with deep admiration.