clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2015-16 Flyers season review: Is there reason to worry about Claude Giroux?

New, comments

The 2015-16 season brought numerous positive developments for the Philadelphia Flyers. But could star center Claude Giroux be showing signs of a late 20s statistical decline?

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers have moved from a franchise stuck in muddled mediocrity to a team with a potentially very bright future. In just two years, general manager Ron Hextall has managed to simultaneously steer his club away from salary cap-induced destruction and restock a formerly-weak farm system -- two very difficult tasks.

In addition, key young players in the organization have taken massive strides. Both Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier posted long-awaited breakout seasons in 2015-16. Younger forwards like Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins appear ready for larger NHL roles, and Shayne Gostisbehere is primed to be the first homegrown impact defenseman for the Flyers in decades. Finally, fellow top prospects Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny all had big years in juniors and aren't far behind Ghost in proximity to the big club.

For the first time in years, there is a plausible path for the Flyers to become a true championship contender. But there remains one elephant in the room when looking at Philadelphia's current retooling process. Even if Provorov, Sanheim and Konecny all reach something close to their ceilings, and Hextall continues to make smart decisions in the GM chair, AND head coach Dave Hakstol proves that his successful year one in Philadelphia was not a fluke, the Flyers will have a hard time competing for titles if Claude Giroux doesn't remain Claude Giroux.

That's the great gamble that Ron Hextall took when he shifted the Flyers' priorities from the constant win-now approach of Paul Holmgren to his current, more long-term focused strategy. Building a lineup filled with high-end young (and cheap) talent complementing impact vets sure seems like the best way to create a yearly contender. But the process doesn't happen overnight. And every year that the Flyers spend "loading up" with young talent is another year of star center Giroux's prime that is spent on a team without legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.

Essentially, Hextall is betting that Giroux will still be a high-end first-line center by the time the kids are ready to push the roster to the next level. It's a definite risk. After all, we know that forwards tend to see a dramatic dropoff in every major statistical category starting around the age-30 mark, and Giroux is already 28 going on 29.

Of course, not all forwards fall off a cliff at 30; the aging curve is not a one-size-fits-all road map to a player's future. Joe Thornton was still dominant at 36 this past year, Joe Pavelski didn't hit his scoring peak until he was 29, Ryan Getzlaf remains a 1C for Anaheim at 31, and Patrice Bergeron didn't stop being Patrice Bergeron just because he hit the big 3-0. So it's totally justifiable for Ron Hextall to wager that Claude Giroux would be the type of player to "break" the aging curve, allowing Hextall to build for the future under the assumption that his superstar will still be great into his early 30s.

But the fact that it is a risk can't be ignored. Giroux carries a massive $8.275 million cap hit through age-34, and even if a decline just turns him into a still-useful second or third line center, the size of that contract could quickly become an albatross for the Flyers. But most importantly, NHL teams simply don't win championships without an elite 1C leading the way.

Players like Crosby, Toews, Bergeron, Datsyuk and Kopitar weren't merely great centers when their teams won the Cup -- they were at the top of the hockey world, and all are likely to garner serious Hall of Fame consideration once their careers end. So unless you believe Sean Couturier can take up the mantle of "superstar 1C" for the team in the coming years, Philadelphia needs Giroux to stay great, or else the foundation on which Hextall's entire retooling process is based upon begins to wobble.

And that leads us into our yearly evaluation of Claude Giroux. Is he still performing like the elite 1C that the Flyers will need over the next five-to-six seasons, or are cracks beginning to show?

Claude Giroux

Background:

Position Center
Age 28 (January 12, 1988)
Contract Status Signed through 2021-22 for $8,275,000 per year

2015-16 Regular Season Numbers:

Are Giroux's statistics in decline?

Back in April of 2012 after the Flyers' first round victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, then-Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette famously proclaimed that Claude Giroux was "the best player in the world." Over time, the statement has generally been viewed in the hockey world as the classic example of small sample size-induced hyperbole, as Giroux's Flyers regressed in the standings over the next few years and failed to take the next step into true championship contention.

The thing is, I'm not sure Laviolette's statement was really that outlandish.

Let's take a second to look at Giroux's age 22-25 seasons, from 2010-11 through 2013-14, and see where he ranked during that four-year period among all NHL forwards in a number of key statistical categories. For standardization's sake, we'll use only metrics from stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

  • 11th among NHL forwards in 5-on-5 Points/60 (who played in at least 2500 5v5 minutes)
  • 42nd among NHL forwards in 5v5 CorsiRelTM
  • 2nd in power play Points/60 (among forwards with at least 400 PP minutes)
  • 10th in shorthanded Points/60 (among forwards with at least 400 SH minutes)
  • 2nd in shorthanded Corsi Against RelTM (basically shot suppression relative to his teammates)
  • played in 289 out of a possible 294 regular season games

Is Giroux the best in any category? No. But a very strong case can be made that he was the best overall special teams player of the period, since only Nicklas Backstrom topped him in power play scoring and Backstrom was sparingly used on the penalty kill, where Giroux also dominated both offensively and defensively.

As for 5-on-5 play, Giroux never was in Sidney Crosby's neighborhood in terms of rate scoring, nor Patrice Bergeron in driving on-ice shot differentials, as both led their respective categories. But the Flyers' captain was still an elite first line scorer and solidly in the middle of the pack among his first line peers when it came to driving play. Combine that with peerless special teams play and underrated durability -- Crosby missed 115 games during those four years and Malkin missed 85 -- and it's not crazy to argue that Giroux, when accounting for all three situations (5v5, PP, PK), was among the best players in hockey from 2010-2014. He might have even been the most valuable one.

But you'll notice that the cutoff for this period of Giroux's statistical dominance is the 2013-14 season. There's a reason for that. Over the past two seasons, Claude Giroux's overall metrics have undeniably taken a bit of a dive.

Let's start by looking at his statistical performance during 5-on-5 play, specifically his rate scoring and shot attempt differentials relative to his teammates.

Giroux 5v5 by Year

Giroux Corsi RelTM

Note: "Territories" were determined by groupings of every 90 qualifying forwards (three forwards x 30 teams). Top 90 forwards in a category = first line territory. 91-180 = second line territory.

Giroux's performance in 2014-15 was intriguing, because while his play-driving ability at 5v5 remained stellar -- in fact, it actually took a step up -- Giroux's scoring fell off a cliff, dropping to the range of a low-end second line forward. That's territory that the Flyers captain had not visited since his first full NHL season.

But considering Giroux's fantastic on-ice attempt differentials and the fact that every Flyers forward not named Jakub Voracek struggled to score at 5v5 in the final year under coach Craig Berube, it was easy to write off the anomaly. Unfortunately, while Giroux did score at a more efficient rate in 2015-16, he didn't fully bounce back to the rates of his statistical prime. And this time, his possession metrics took a dive into second liner territory, matching his scoring.

It wasn't just Giroux's 5v5 play that sagged last year. After four straight seasons of posting a 5-on-4 Points per 60 rate of over 6.50, Giroux finished at 4.91 in 2015-16, still in the top-40 of all NHL forwards but a far cry from his usual position at the top of the charts. In addition, Giroux's controlled entry rate dropped below 50% for the first time since tracked data became available publicly due to efforts by Jess Schmidt. Considering that in 2011-12, Giroux entered the offensive zone with control of the puck a whopping 67% of the time, falling to 49.01% this past year is a precipitous drop and potential evidence of a physical slowdown.

After all that negativity, what needs be noted is that none of these metrics are bad. Giroux still drove play this year, still scored 67 points to lead the Flyers, still quarterbacked a dangerous top unit with the man advantage. But while the Giroux of 2010-2014 could make a legitimate case to be considered among the best hockey players in the world, the one from the past two seasons was simply a very good player -- a 1C on the whole, but no longer in the class of the true elites from a statistical standpoint.

The real concern isn't that the Giroux of 2015-16 was a bad player, or even an overpaid one, because neither label is accurate. It's that if Giroux's performance took a decent-sized drop from age 25 to age 27, what happens when he hits 30? What about 32? Is this the start of an irreversible downward trend for a player who has still six more years left on a contract paying him like a franchise center?

How can we explain Giroux's recent statistical decline?

In a sense, statistics don't lie, in that they simply measure historical performance. But they can mislead and result in faulty conclusions. In the case of Claude Giroux, they clearly raise the question of whether the Flyers' captain has entered the decline phase of his career, but it's incomplete to merely point to the numbers and say, "Giroux isn't elite anymore!" Instead, let's look at a number of theories that could help to explain his statistical dropoff.

The first and most straightforward theory is also the one that Flyers fans should pray proves to be wrong. This is the aging theory -- the possibility that Giroux is just following the usual statistical curve of an NHL forward when it comes to the effect of age on scoring and play driving.

After all, Eric Tulsky did find that rate scoring for NHL forwards peaks around age 24, and on-ice attempt differentials at 25. For Giroux, that would have been the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons -- coincidentally the final two years of his statistical peak presented earlier.

Tulsky

If this is the case, the big concern for Philadelphia is that the aging curve dropoff only becomes steeper in a player's late 20s and early 30s, which are just ahead of the now-28 year old Giroux. The past two seasons may not only be the new normal for Giroux, but just the beginning of a steady decline in statistical performance.

But there are other, far less discouraging theories. The most convincing is that last season's statistical decline (especially in play driving ability) was due to Giroux battling through a hip injury that eventually required surgery. By the eye test, Giroux simply did not look to be at his best in the latter half of the season and into the playoffs, and a worsening injury would help to explain that.

In fact, Giroux's drop in 5v5 play-driving results was almost entirely due to a disastrous final two months, when his injury was likely at its worst. 10-game rolling charts of Giroux's relative Corsi (all on-ice shot attempts) and relative Expected Goals (all on-ice attempts weighted for location and quality) help to illustrate when the dropoff truly occurred (courtesy of Corsica.Hockey).

Giroux Corsi Relative

Giroux Expected Goals

In both charts, Giroux's season appears to be rolling along smoothly, as he hovers around his usual elite play-driving range. Then, around the middle of February, his metrics tank. It's especially noticeable in the Expected Goals chart, which sees Giroux go from regularly 5-10 percentage points better than his teammates in the season's first four months, to 10-15 percentage points worse over the final two months.

It's unlikely that Claude Giroux would simply wake up one morning in the middle of February and change from an elite play-driving center into a legitimate liability relative to his teammates. It's more likely that something dramatic occurred, and the "hampered by injuries" theory seems quite believable.

Suddenly, the narrative surrounding Giroux's 2015-16 season changes. Without the injury (if you buy this theory), Giroux is still an elite 5v5 possession player who rebounded to a degree from a poor even-strength scoring season the previous year. That's far less menacing than "everything is trending downward."

A third theory is that much of Giroux's recent statistical issues have been due to factors beyond his control, a combination of team-wide structural adjustments and just plain bad luck.

After all, a case could be made that Giroux's poor 5v5 point totals in 2014-15 were driven by Craig Berube's ineffective on-ice tactics, which helped lead to the coach's firing. Then, the Flyers' goal-scoring struggles to start last season (to which Giroux was not immune) could have been primarily caused by the team adjusting to the new systems of Dave Hakstol. Even the dropoff in power play scoring rates for Giroux could be explained by the bizarre cold streak of Jakub Voracek over the first few months last season, which helped to drag down the performance of the entire unit.

If this theory proves true, then Giroux is poised for a major rebound season in 2016-17. Berube is long gone, the team is now familiar with Hakstol's tactics, and the chances of Voracek shooting at a 1.41% rate on the PP yet again seem about as likely as Eric Lindros coming out of retirement.

In the end, Claude Giroux will have the opportunity to shape his own narrative in the coming season, and lend support to one or more of these theories with his on-ice play. But just as Giroux's statistics over the past two seasons do not guarantee that his performance will continue to progressively decline, all the optimistic theories in the world can't erase the fact that aging is a plausible explanation for Giroux's recent play.

Conclusion

The retooling process of the Philadelphia Flyers under general manager Ron Hextall continued to move in a positive direction over the course of the 2015-16 season. Prospects took leaps forward, young NHL pieces started to live up their on-paper potential, and the team even snuck into the playoffs due to a late surge.

But for Ron Hextall's plan to truly come to fruition, the young talent of the Flyers will need to develop into a strong supporting core while star Claude Giroux is still an impact 1C at the NHL level. However, for the second straight season, Giroux's statistical performance declined from his four-year peak.

There are a number of possible reasons for Giroux's statistical decline that do not constitute an irreversible trend, such as injury, team-wide tactical shifts, and cold streaks from key linemates. Still, the possibility exists that the 28-year old Giroux is simply at the start of his age-related decline, and that things will only get worse from here.

Personally, I don't buy that Giroux is finished as an elite NHL center. My guess is that the hip injury had a major impact on his play-driving ability and that a healthy Giroux will again post Corsi rates in first liner territory. In addition, I suspect that Philadelphia will be a far more efficient scoring team in year two of the Hakstol era, and Giroux's 5v5 Points/60 rate floor is closer to what he delivered this past season rather than being a harbinger of further declines to come.

Hextall also has hopes that the signing of Boyd Gordon will have a positive impact on Giroux, allowing for the captain to take less defensive zone draws at 5v5 and on the penalty kill and keeping him fresher for offensive situations. Decreased responsibilities could certainly help Giroux a bit in his attempt to rebound to past heights.

On the other hand. statistics have the advantage of cutting through personal biases. And in the case of Claude Giroux, they're telling us that the aging process may be starting to catch up with the Flyers captain. That potential outcome can't be ignored just because it's unpleasant to envision.

Player Card (via hockeyviz.com):

G