A look at Claude Giroux’s glorious rejuvenation

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Hockey fans get a chance to see a rising Philadelphia Flyers team as they take on the Capitals in Washington on NBCSN tonight, and they also get a chance to witness one of the best new lines of 2017-18 in action.

It’s funny how things happen in sports sometimes. Back in training camp, sliding Claude Giroux to the left wing, placing Sean Couturier as the Flyers’ top center, and filling out the trio with Jakub Voracek seemed like it might just be an interesting experiment. Even if Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol praised the way Giroux embraced the move.

“When your captain is as selfless as ‘G’ is, he [goes] all in,” Hakstol said, via NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer back in September. “Whatever the role is, he’s going to attack it… It’s early, but he’s had a very high-level camp.”

In this age of more analytics-minded writing, it’s often a goal to identify how much a player succeeds with or without another player, hence the use of “WOWY” stats.

PHT’s discussed how Giroux has factored into Couturier’s leap to stardom, but the beauty of certain hockey combinations is how well certain players blend together. Giroux and Voracek already formed quite the kinship – heck, there have been times when they’ve even looked like each other – yet it’s been profoundly interesting to see how Giroux and Couturier have served as catalysts beyond even optimistic expectations. (Again, Voracek probably helped quite a bit, too.)

While it’s fair to speculate that Giroux has rebounded thanks in part to better health (see here), it’s resounding to see the difference between 2016-17 and this season.

Last season, according to Natural Stat Trick, Couturier and Giroux played just five minutes and fifteen seconds together at 5-on-5. This season, just under 65 of Giroux’s minutes have been away from Couturier, while almost 645 have come with him.

You can see a change in Giroux’s game in a few ways.

  • Giroux is becoming more of an even-strength threat again. He already has more even-strength goals (nine versus six), assists (21 to 12), points (30 to 18), and first assists (11 to 5) in 49 games in 2017-18 than he had in 82 games in 2016-17, via Natural Stat Trick.
  • His possession stats are up, even with more shifts starting in his own zone.
  • Giroux isn’t as dependent upon the power play for his production, yet he’s still dangerous on the man advantage.
  • He’s been more of a playmaker than before. Via Hockey Reference, his .88 assists per game average is a career-high. Giroux’s been firing the puck less lately, but it’s especially pronounced now. He averaged 2.43 shots per game in 2016-17, and now it’s down to just 2.08. That’s a big drop from 2015-16’s 3.08, not to mention 3.44 from 2014-15. You can see the difference in Couturier’s game; he only averaged more than two shots on goal per contest once before (2.01 per pop in 2013-14), yet this season he’s averaging exactly 3.00 this season.
  • Couturier’s already blown away career-highs with barely over a season down, and Giroux is looking to have one of his best years in ages, if ever. Last season, Giroux scored 14 goals and 44 assists for 58 points in 82 games. He could eclipse those marks with a strong display on Wednesday; he currently has 14 goals and 43 assists for 57 points in just 49 games.

At 30 years old, Giroux’s $8.275 million cap hit was starting to look scary for the Flyers, considering that his contract won’t expire until after the 2021-22 season. Voracek, 28, has a similarly scary deal ($8.25M cap hit) expires way off in 2023-24.

That’s not ideal, but it’s easier to stomach a top line that also includes Couturier’s bargain $4.33M cap hit, which runs through 2021-22.

As time goes along, Giroux’s contract could look ugly again. Players can sometimes age drastically in the NHL, and that seemed to be the direction for him, until he lined up with Couturier (and got healthier).

That said, the good news is that Giroux is willing to change his role for the good of the team. Maybe his story is also a lesson to the Montreal Canadiens with Alex Galchenyuk and other situations: getting moved out of the center position can be more warmly received if it puts a player in a better position to succeed. In Giroux’s case, he wasn’t seeing a major drop in ice time or opportunities; instead, Giroux was merely being asked to take a simpler, more offensive-minded role after being asked to do a lot as the center and captain.

If only every experiment could go as well for the Flyers, NHL, and sports teams in general …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

ovechkin all star
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

mark stone surgery
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.