Are the Flyers really better off when Claude Giroux plays less?

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

The numbers show that the Flyers win more and Claude Giroux scores more when he plays fewer than 21 minutes of ice time in a hockey game. Why is that?

Around the Flyers corner of the Internet lately, a strange theory has been floating around: Are the Flyers better off when Claude Giroux plays less than 21 minutes per game?

Via Anthony SanFilippo at Flyers Inside Out:

Giroux is actually more productive and the Flyers are more successful the less he plays.

[...]

- In the 19 games where he exceeded 21 minutes, he has a stat line of two goals, seven assists and nine points. The team's record in those games is 5-12-2.

- In the 17 games in which he clocked in with less than 21 minutes, Giroux's scoring has been superb (7-15-22) and the team has an excellent record of 11-4-2.

SanFilippo goes on to give a bunch more numbers about how much better Giroux's (and the team's) numbers are in games where he plays fewer than 21 minutes of ice time. He wrote this about two weeks ago, and since then I've seen the idea mentioned in a couple of places -- notably, in a very similar article written by the Inquirer's Sam Carchidi on Sunday.

Let's talk about this. It's worth noting that neither SanFilippo nor Carchidi said anything along the lines of "the Flyers need to play Giroux less in order for him and the team to be better", but since some will inevitably draw that conclusion from the data, I think we should talk about why that's not a conclusion we should draw.

First, let's take a look at this question, again from SanFilippo:

Is it possible that there is a time threshold for Giroux that, once he crosses it, takes him from elite status to just being an ordinary player?

I suppose it's possible that as soon as he plays 21 minutes he stops becoming a great player. Every single one of Claude Giroux's 39 points scored this season came before he reached the 21-minute mark in a game this season, so if you're looking for some sort of damning evidence, I guess you could point to that.

The problem is that the overwhelming majority of Giroux's ice time comes before he hits that 21-minute mark, and as such we should expect an overwhelming majority of his points to come before that mark.

Giroux has played 915:03 this season. Of that, 869:01 has come before that 21-minute mark. That's about 95 percent of his total ice time. As such, we'd expect about 95 percent of Giroux's points -- meaning about 37 of them -- should come before that mark. The expectation is pretty close to the reality.

By comparison, last season he played about 95.1 percent of his ice time before that mark and scored 95.8 percent of his points (46 out of 48) before it -- right about where you would expect it to be. I don't think Giroux lost the ability to score points after 21 minutes during the offseason or anything like that, so let's move on.

Here's what I'm more inclined to believe the answer is:

Is it possible, crazy as it sounds, that the Flyers have had better results in games when Giroux plays less than 21 minutes than when he plays more?

The answer, as ASF goes on to point out, is yes, they do. But as he also mentions in the article (as does Carchidi in his, and quotes from Craig Berube in both stories), there's a fairly intuitive reason for that.

If we look at this 21-minute threshold again, Giroux has topped it on 23 occasions this season. In 17 of those 23 games, the Flyers faced a deficit on the scoreboard at some point in the third period, and in nine of them, that deficit was multiple goals. The Flyers went 3-13-1 in those 17 games.

So what's the more likely cause and effect here?

  • The Flyers giving Giroux, their best player, an extra minute or two over the mark of 21 is causing them to be trailing in hockey games, OR:
  • The Flyers trailing in hockey games is causing them to give Giroux, their best player, an extra minute or two over the mark of 21?

Option 2 is pretty obviously more correct here. When the Flyers are losing in the third period, Giroux should be playing as many minutes as he reasonably can be because he's one of the best all-around centers in hockey, he's the team's best scorer, and he makes offense happen. There is almost no rational argument otherwise.

Similarly, I hope we can all see why inferring any sort of causation from Giroux's elevated ice time to the team's abysmal record in those games would be silly. It's actually the other way around.

In 11 of the 20 games where Giroux's been under the 21-minute mark, the Flyers either never trailed or found themselves up by multiple goals at some point in the third period. In both situations, teams usually give their leading scorer some rest in favor of the more defensively-oriented players on the team. Of those 20 games (in which the Flyers are 14-4-2), Giroux scored at least one point in 15 of them, and multiple points in nine of them.

Again, we can probably deduce which direction the correlation works in here: when Claude Giroux scores points early in games, it's more likely that the Flyers are going to find themselves winning said games (sometimes by multiple goals), and when the Flyers are winning games, Giroux won't play as much because the team is less likely to be pressing for goals.

Furthermore -- and I hope you're sitting down here for this one, because a hot take is coming your way here -- when the Flyers are getting points from their best scorer, they're more likely to be winning games.

Let's sum this up in a highly scientific diagram. Answer the first question and you'll notice that the rest basically falls in line. Click to enlarge:

Giroux_diagram_medium

Ultimately, I wouldn't mind if Giroux's minutes were down a little in the regular season. As you can see here and in the articles above, when it's happening, it's usually coinciding with the Flyers winning hockey games. And if the team's way up or way down in a game, sure, sit him some and save his legs for the next time around. But if you're going to try and win games that you're losing, the best way to do it is to play your best players. If he ends up going above the 21-minute mark here and there, so be it, because the team is better off for it.

(Know who else would've been better off for it? Team Canada. Whatever, losers.)

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