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.