When you look at Claude Giroux, what do you see? This has always been the core question of his career, of his 12 years with the Flyers — his captaincy, his ebbs and flows, his seasons as a top-four candidate for the Hart Trophy and the seasons like this one, when his point total has plummeted. He turned 32 last month. He has not scored a goal in 13 games, the Flyers’ 5-0 loss Thursday to the Devils the latest in a long stretch of exasperating nights. He had 102 points two seasons ago, 85 in 82 games last season, just 35 in 54 this season.
So is he a prolific scorer in decline? He might be that. Yet for all that offensive responsibility that Giroux has borne, for all the production he has delivered, the Flyers haven’t won a postseason series since 2012 and have made the playoffs just three times in seven years, and now they’re thriving, relatively speaking, in spite of their longtime cornerstone player’s apparent regression.
They had been 6-1-1 in their previous eight games before their atrocious effort Thursday. They still were in striking distance of the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card playoff spots. And Giroux, who has led them in scoring in seven of the last nine seasons, has been on a 53-point pace. Maybe time has caught him. Maybe this is how the big slide begins.
“When you’re not scoring, you try to go back to the basics and do something to help the team," he said. “Obviously, I’m frustrated.”
That’s one way to see it. Here’s another: Maybe Giroux is becoming a different player. The statistics suggest he is. He has spent more time in the Flyers’ defensive zone, starting 55.7% of his faceoffs there, than he has in any previous season. His Corsi — the percentage of time that the Flyers are controlling the puck while he is on the ice — is 55.9, the highest of his career. His faceoff percentage, 58.9, is also the best of his career.
Granted, he didn’t seem that sound, diligent player Thursday. He was a minus-3, and the Devils’ Blake Coleman scored 13 seconds into the game, while Giroux was skating next to him. “I take responsibility for that,” he said, and it was a bad moment. But the numbers, over the longer term, are what they are.
And with those not-as-sexy numbers for Giroux, the Flyers have been a better team this season. They’re better because of Alain Vigneault’s coaching and Kevin Hayes’ presence and Sean Couturier’s development into their best forward, because of their stability in goal and their increased experience and depth on defense. This was always going to be a telltale sign that they were improving, that they were getting closer to being a team that could compete for a Stanley Cup: They didn’t need Giroux to be the player he’d been. He could make the sort of transition that others before him and similar to him made — Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano — to superstar emeritus, to a veteran who doesn’t have to be as good as he once was, but can be as good once as he ever was.
“There’s still a lot of runway left for him,” said former Flyers center Dave Poulin, who analyzes the NHL for TSN. “But from a standpoint of offense, if he produces 102 points, are the Flyers a Cup contender? If he produces 60, are they a better Cup contender?”
When he looks at Giroux, Poulin does not see himself, though he could. A generation ago, Poulin was for the Flyers what Giroux has been: their captain, their No. 1 center, excellent at both ends of the ice, a point-per-game player. But on a line with Brian Propp and Tim Kerr, Poulin was under no illusions about who helped each other more. Had the Flyers of that era had a better top-line center, he said during a phone interview, they might have beaten the Edmonton Oilers in one of those two Stanley Cup Finals of the mid-1980s. The Oilers, after all, had Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
“If I was the number-one guy,” Poulin said, “it probably meant we weren’t deep enough offensively to win. I saw this humbly. Timmy had four 50-goal seasons with me as his primary center. He didn’t have Adam Oates passing him the puck — or Claude Giroux for that matter. Claude Giroux and I don’t compare in any way offensively.”
No, but they do in the arc of their careers. Poulin won the Selke Trophy in 1986-87, as the NHL’s best defensive forward, and he never lost that style and sensibility over his 12-year career. He was a conscientious player, and that made him valuable even as his skills and scoring decreased. Giroux has more pure talent, but he has those same tools in his box: the intelligence, the experience.
“You’re talking about a guy who has averaged 93 points the last couple of years,” Poulin said. “Those are huge numbers, and that’s why the drop-off this season is so significant. But I’ll guarantee you, he’s interested in one thing right now. He’s not interested in individual numbers or awards. He’s interested in winning.
“It’s become fashionable, to focus on the glitz of young kids like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews and those flashy offensive players, but I remind people not to forget the quality veterans who are still in the league. When it gets down to a rugged playoff series, you see those guys emerge, guys with more mileage and experience. And from that standpoint, 32 isn’t old.”