The Flyers employ a lot of two-way type forwards, and one major, positive byproduct of that is that they typically have a solid stable of players who can play on the penalty kill.
Last season, for instance, the Flyers had as many as seven different forwards (Max Talbot, Ruslan Fedotenko, Sean Couturier, Matt Read, Adam Hall, Claude Giroux, Simon Gagne) manning the PK at times That the number is so high (compared to just four in 2011-12) was due in part to injuries, but even if so, all of those guys are certainly players who can be adequate while down a man.
Of those seven guys, we know that at least five of them will be on the team this year, and maybe six depending on the contract status of Simon Gagne. If it's not Gagne, Scott Laughton may make the team, and is probably another one who could fill in there with his defensive ability.
All of which prompts the question: with so many players who can play pretty well on the penalty kill, how often should the Flyers put their super star center out there?
Giroux's role on the penalty kill has diminished a bit as his role on the team has increased. He went from third on the Flyers in ice time per game while down a man in 2010-11 (pre-Mike Richards/Jeff Carter trades) to fourth in 2011-12 to fifth in 2013 (sixth if you include Hall, whose numbers include some penalty killing with the Lightning and Hurricanes last season).
Logically, it makes sense that Giroux's had to do less on the PK as he's taken on more offensive responsibility. Penalty killing involves a lot of being willing and able to put your body on the line to block shots, which is generally painful and can in some instances lead to broken bones and other annoying injuries. The Flyers would probably not prefer their world-class, $66 million center (who's under contract for nearly the next decade) to spend two or three minutes per game as a blockade for opponents to repeatedly shoot at. This may be especially true now, given that he's already gone through one injury scare before the season has even started.
Rather, they'd probably want to be able to use him at 5-on-5 and on the power play, where he's at risk less often and can put his full skillset on display. Couple that sentiment with the fact that, as mentioned, the Flyers have at least four and probably five other players who can do a respectable job out there on the PK, and it seems like Giroux is probably best kept not spending that much time in that situation.
But then there's the flip side of the coin: Claude Giroux is really, really good at killing penalties. As in "possibly the best penalty-killing forward in the NHL" good.
Courtesy of Travis Yost at Hockeybuzz, here's a table of the best forwards in the league (over the last three seasons) at getting the puck in the other end of the ice while a man down:
That's a really solid list of good two-way forwards, and Giroux's right there at the top of it.
In addition to that, you can see a full ranking here, via hockeyanalysis.com, of which forwards get the highest percentage of shots at the other end of the ice (in other words, who spends the least amount of time in their own end). While Claude Giroux is on the ice on the PK, 21.3 percent of shot attempts will be going the Flyers' way. That's by far the best in the league for any one forward.
In the same timeframe, he also has the most shorthanded points in the league, and he's been the fourth-best in the league at simply preventing shot attempts against (two spots behind another Flyer, Sean Couturier). In summary: Claude Giroux is one of the best in the league at creating both scoring attempts and actual goals for his team, and at preventing attempts for the other team, while on the penalty kill. If he's not the best penalty killer in the league, he's pretty darn close.
Peter Laviolette likes to cycle between two pairs of two forwards on the penalty kill. I doubt he'll take any of Talbot, Couturier or Read off of the PK. If he wants to use Hall there as well because of his face off skills and good defensive ability, Giroux will probably be the fifth guy, who only comes in on occasion to give one of the first four a breather. That's in essence what he was last year, meaning he'll miss a lot of those dangerous blocked shots and bruises.
But there's simply no way around it: the less time Claude Giroux spends on the penalty kill, the worse off that penalty kill performs. Maybe that's a risk you can take, because the Flyers were still a good team on the PK last season (fifth in the league in PK percentage and fifth at preventing shot attempts against while on the PK) despite Giroux being only their fifth-most frequent penalty killer. The potential reward of moving even higher in those rankings might not be worth the potential risk of your star player getting hurt while blocking shots. But there's a big gap between where they'd be if he's on the ice and where they'd be with him off of it.
I'm not sure how Laviolette and the coaching staff should proceed from here. So vote in the poll below and let us know what you think.