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Is a bounce-back actually in store for Claude Giroux this season?

Coming off of his least productive season this decade, Claude Giroux is tasked with showing he’s still got years of high-end production left in him.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2017-18 Flyers season draws near, we’ll be breaking down everyone we expect to make the roster, from the long-time vets to the new guys. For each player, we’ll ask three key questions about their season, and look at what their best- and worst-case scenarios are for the year.

Six summers ago, the Flyers put into motion a reset of the core of its team, trading away captain Mike Richards and top goal-scorer Jeff Carter for three talented young forwards and three draft picks and then signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract, all within about an hour on (obviously) June 23. The team — as then-general manager Paul Holmgren called it that day and in subsequent interviews on the matter — became a “different” team that day, one that was going to need a new face of the franchise.

It wasn’t quite as obvious at the time of those trades, but it quickly became apparent who that face was going to be.

Claude Giroux, already coming off of a 76-point season before those trades, emerged immediately not just as the best player on the team but as one of the best players in the sport. Spending most of the year between Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell, he was the single biggest reason the Flyers navigated that first season post-Richards/Carter trades as well as they did, and he led the team to its most recent playoff series win in the process.

In the few seasons that followed, Giroux — despite a lack of recognition and respect from some corners of the hockey world, including that of the Canadian Olympic team in 2014 (sometimes you just gotta have Chris Kunitz on your roster, y’know?) — remained the force that kept a few otherwise-unimpressive Flyers team afloat. He famously guaranteed the Flyers would make the playoffs after a 1-7-0 start in 2013-14, and then made it happen with a year in which he was a deserved Hart Trophy finalist. He was also a near-point-per-game player again the following year as things fell apart under Craig Berube ... the same way he was two years prior, when things fell apart under Peter Laviolette.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The years since the trades that changed the Flyers as we know them have largely consisted of Claude Giroux doing everything he possibly could to cover for holes elsewhere on the roster, whether in terms of depth forwards, bad defense, or shaky goaltending. Because that’s what the face of a franchise does.

And now, six years after those trades, the Flyers appear to be on the verge of another reset. And where their current captain and face of the franchise fits into that reset is something no one seems to be quite sure about.

Giroux is coming off of arguably the worst full season of his nine-year NHL career, having posted 58 points in 82 games (a 0.71 points-per-game mark that is his lowest since his age-21/22 season in 2009-10, which was also his first full NHL season). At even strength, Giroux’s scoring numbers were almost unfathomably bad; among regular Flyers forwards, only noted offensive dynamos Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Roman Lyubimov scored fewer points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Claude did. His production on the power play remained stellar, and his possession/play-driving metrics were positive overall and compared to the rest of the Flyers, but it’s tough to deny that right now Claude Giroux doesn’t look anything like the player that dragged the Flyers to the playoffs twice earlier this decade.

And maybe that’s to be expected. Giroux turns 30 in January, and signs that he may be falling off a bit started to show as recently as 2015-16. The hope at that time was that Giroux spent much of that season dealing with the effects of core injuries (injuries which required post-season surgery that spring), and that with an offseason to heal, Giroux would look more like the player we’d grown used to seeing. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and some mid-season quotes from Giroux about his body not being able to do what it used to only further worried the team’s fanbase that the team’s long-time leader and best player is going to continue to get worse before he gets any better.

Prior to this offseason, the specter of Giroux’s potential decline hung over the Flyers’ future, as the lack of a long-term top-line center could have undone all of the other great work Ron Hextall has done in building a potential Cup contender via the team’s high-end prospect pipeline. Winning the draft lottery and drafting Nolan Patrick changed that.

But Giroux is still going to be making over $8 million against the Flyers’ cap for the next five seasons, and while there are reasons to be optimistic for a bit of a bounce-back this year, it’s very tough to know exactly what to expect from the captain. Six years after the Flyers blew up the team and Giroux emerged as the cornerstone of the franchise, the question of how his play will trend as new franchise cornerstones emerge remains almost as big of a question as any facing the team right now.

3 Big Questions: Claude Giroux

1. Was Giroux healthy last year, is he healthy now, and does it matter?

(Alright, so technically that’s three questions rolled into one, but they’re all pretty well tied together, so let’s approach them all at once.)

The news that Claude Giroux was having surgery on his hip and abdominal muscles came as a minor surprise in May of 2016, as Giroux had steadfastly denied in exit interviews that he was slowed down by any sort of injury. At the time, though, it also made some sense to fans who had seen Giroux struggle through the tail end of the 2015-16 regular season and the Flyers’ first-round loss to the Capitals, and it gave them some hope. Their best player didn’t suddenly become a 5-on-5 non-factor overnight, he was hurt! Nothing to see here, he’ll be fine with some time to recover!

Of course, Giroux wasn’t fine, and the question of how much of last year’s struggles were due to lingering short-term effects from his injury/surgery, lingering long-term (and potentially permanent) effects from his injury/surgery, and effects from a general age-related decline is the single biggest question that comes with trying to forecast Giroux’s 2017-18 season.

That Giroux didn’t feel like the Giroux of old last year is not news to anyone. Exactly how long it takes to recover from the surgery he underwent in May of last year isn’t something that we know with certainty at this time, but the initial window provided by the team of a “return to full activity in 10-12 weeks” would have placed a full recovery for Giroux some time in late August of 2016. And sure enough, in late August of 2016, Giroux told the media that he was 100 percent, via the Inquirer’s Mark Narducci.

Which made the following statements from Giroux in March, almost a full season later, all the more concerning for Flyers fans (also via Narducci):

"When you try to make plays you used to make and can't really make them, it is frustrating and confusing," Giroux said. "When you start getting the confidence back, you know you can make those plays you just go out there and make it happen."

The hip injury was more difficult to overcome.

"I think when you don't think about that kind of stuff, you go out and play the game, but when it is in the back of your mind and you are really not thinking about the game and mostly thinking about your hip or whatever, I think it is important to kind of focus on the right things," he said.

"Even if you don't feel good out there, you have to find the right way to be strong mentally."

Giroux’s quotes here are brought up in the context of his surgery, but again, this is over six months after the time at which Giroux was expected to return to “full activities”. To be fair, that doesn’t necessarily mean “the exact same player”, as injuries can take a while to recover from — in fact, some discussion surrounding the exact surgeries Giroux underwent has suggested that it could take around a full year’s worth of time to truly get back to the level of performance that he was at prior to the surgery.

But the biggest question facing Giroux is whether those issues are going to get better with some more time to heal, or whether at his age the effects of a core-muscle surgery will affect his game for the rest of his career. Somewhat concerning in that excerpt above is the idea that Giroux’s hip injury and subsequent surgery was “more difficult to overcome”, as it’s at least possible that the soon-to-be-30-year-old with a whole lot of miles on his legs just won’t be the same player at this point in his career following a significant surgery. (This idea was discussed a bit in the July 3 episode of BSH Radio, in which the panel talked a bit about Nolan Patrick’s June surgery and the doctor who performed it, who also happened to perform Giroux’s surgery last year.)

Ron Hextall, who publicly remains optimistic about Giroux this season, had one theory that he expressed to the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac last week: that Giroux’s appearance in the World Cup of Hockey cut his rehab a bit short, and that the adverse effects of that played a bigger role in his recovery than may have been expected:

I think last year the World Cup, in hindsight, was probably the worst thing that could have happened for him because it shortened his rehab/workout window in the summer trying to get over the surgery. I think it was much of that time at the World Cup that hurt him as it was…if you look at the first part of the year he was actually pretty good and then he started to dip. If you don’t have a full summer, a lot of times it will show up later in the year because you just can’t maintain over the course of the year. I believe that was a big chunk of what happened to Claude. He knows he’s a better player. We know he’s a better player.

For a whole number of reasons, no one should expect the team’s general manager to be anything but optimistic about his captain/top-line center/franchise player when it comes to public interviews and statements, so take everything Hextall says there with a grain of salt. But if you’re an optimist, the idea that Giroux’s offseason being cut short affected his rehab may be a welcomed one. Giroux still played hockey into May as a part of Canada’s World Championships team (being selected to the team by none other than Hextall himself), but the hope that four months in which Giroux can just focus on his rehab may do him some good heading into this year.

Finally, there was the idea expressed by some that Giroux improved as the season went on, and that that improvement was a product of his getting healthier. And by the eye test, Giroux did seem to be moving around a bit better later on in the year. However, in his season review for Giroux here at BSH, Charlie O’Connor looked into Giroux’s splits over the course of the season and didn’t find much evidence that Giroux’s actual performance really ticked up late in the year. (Additionally, one could argue that the idea that Giroux improved late in the year runs directly counter to Hextall’s aforementioned theory that training for/playing in the World Cup ended up hurting his season further down the line.)

All of which boils down to this: It’s very, very tough to say how much after-effects of Giroux’s surgery contributed to his relative down-year in 2016-17, and right now, it’s equally difficult to tell if those injuries that led to that surgery are ones he’ll fully recover from or ones that will plague him for the rest of his career. But by the time Claude Giroux takes the ice on October 4 in San Jose, we’ll be over 16 months removed from that surgery.

Any short-term impact that the surgery had on Giroux should, hopefully, not be a factor by then. If Giroux still looks a step slower this year and still isn’t able to “make the plays [he] used to make”, odds are that either he’s come across a new injury (which opens up its own set of problems) or the Giroux we saw last year isn’t going anywhere.

For his sake and for the Flyers’ sake, we can only hope that’s not the case.

2. How do the Flyers get more out of Giroux at 5-on-5 offensively?

Hope he gets healthier. Problem solved!

Ideally, it’s that simple: Giroux was plagued by injuries last year, and a healthier version of him will score more points.

But even before his injury troubles started late in the 2015-16 season, Giroux’s performance offensively at 5-on-5 had taken a bit of a dip in the two seasons prior. To borrow a chart from Charlie’s review of Giroux’s 2015-16 season:

Even before this year’s plunge into fourth-liner territory, the numbers in 2014-15 and 2015-16 had Claude in second-liner territory in terms of scoring. That’s certainly not bad, and at this point in time I think we’d all welcome a return to second-line-production for the captain. Given the pieces around him and the likelihood that he’ll still be good on the power play, that may be all the Flyers need from him at this point. (More on that in a second.)

But those seasons were during the prime years of his career, and Giroux turns 30 in January. Even if Giroux’s “healthy” again, the idea that he’s a lock to get back to where he was at even strength when he was 27 years old may be misguided, and any sort of drop-off from where he was at 27 could spell trouble.

The good news is it’ll be hard for Giroux to replicate his abnormally-low 5-on-5 scoring numbers from last year, for a couple of reasons. We know the following:

  • Via Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers’ shooting percentage at 5-on-5 last year with Giroux on the ice was 5.95 percent, fifth-worst on the team among regular forwards. Even for a team that may genuinely have a below-average shooting talent, it’s hard to see that level of poor luck continue. And if more goals happen with Giroux on the ice, more points will inevitably follow.
  • In addition, as Charlie pointed out in his season review, Giroux only registered a point on 52.9 percent of 5-on-5 goals that he was on the ice for last year. That’s an extremely low percentage for any forward, let alone one that’s as talented a passer and as active in the offensive zone as Giroux typically is. That number should tick up drastically this year (Giroux typically registered a point on around 34 of on-ice 5-on-5 goals prior to last season), and Giroux’s scoring should increase in kind.

Which is to say that Giroux shouldn’t have 5-on-5 scoring rates similar to those of bad 4th-liners next year. But there’s still the question of what he and the team can do beyond hoping dumb luck swings the other way.

The biggest question in projecting Giroux’s scoring is how good he is at creating high-opportunity scoring chances at this point in his career. As Charlie mentioned in his review, not only is Giroux generating fewer scoring opportunities than he used to, but those opportunities are coming from farther away than they usually do. Again, it could be the case that Giroux’s physical limitations from the past two seasons are preventing him from getting to places he used to be able to get to, which could just mean that if he can’t do it himself, Dave Hakstol needs to keep him with linemates who can.

That may mean keeping him at all times with a strong netfront presence, be that a big guy like Wayne Simmonds or potentially Oskar Lindblom or a smaller, shiftier type, such as Travis Konecny or Jordan Weal. And maybe it involves less deferral of shots to the team’s blue line, where guys like Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere are third and ninth in the entire NHL, respectively, in shot attempts per 60 minutes among regular defensemen (via), even though by nature shot attempts from defensemen are going to be lower-percentage chances.

Whatever the proper combination of personnel and improved tactics may be, Giroux’s still too good of a passer and set-up man to be totally washed up in terms of offensive production. And while he’s not a difference-maker in terms of play-driving any more, he’s a good enough player in the neutral zone that, with the right pieces around him, the Flyers should be able to be in the black scoring-wise with him on the ice, in large part thanks to his offensive production.

3. What will Giroux’s role be?

When you have a player in the fourth year of an eight-year deal that pays him like a top-end center, in an ideal world that player is still going to be in a top-line role, since when you’re paying a guy like a top-end center it’s pretty hard to find other players to approximate that role in the event that your guy can’t do it himself. But we may not live in an ideal world when it comes to Claude Giroux any more, and unless a lot of things that we’ve talked about above go right, it’s possible that we’re not looking at a guy that should be filling an all-around top-line center role on the Flyers.

Luckily, the Flyers may have the pieces in place to free Giroux up to do what he does best, thanks to a 5-on-5 stalwart and a rookie scorer.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not totally clear yet how Dave Hakstol plans to balance the roles and responsibilities of the Flyers’ projected top three centers this year — Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Nolan Patrick (who, no, is not a lock to make the team, but still seems more likely to than not to). But if last season was a hint, Giroux and Couturier are more or less already sharing top-line responsibility at even strength. While Giroux led the team in ice time per game last season, he and Couturier — who, lest we forget, is probably the best 5-on-5 player on the team at this moment — played basically the same amount per game at 5-on-5, with Giroux getting just five more seconds per game than the 24-year old (13:57 to 13:52).

Is an increase in responsibility in the cards for Couturier this year? That could be one way to keep Giroux fresher and in more favorable situations. Couturier has shown he can handle tough assignments at 5-on-5; even getting just a little bit more from him in those assignments could go a long way towards freeing up Giroux, who could essentially handle second-line minutes at evens while continuing to take on a big power play role and some spot duty on the penalty kill.

The potential addition of Patrick to the picture, meanwhile, could mean a number of things. It’s possible — likely, even — that the Flyers aren’t going to want to throw their 19-year old center to the wolves right away, which could mean he starts his NHL career off with relatively light assignments. That would leave Giroux to handle, essentially, the space in between Couturier’s heavy minutes and Patrick’s sheltered ones, and that could be a happy medium as Claude tries to recover his scoring touch.

But if Patrick comes right out and succeeds right away at the NHL level — not a given and not necessarily something we should expect, but certainly something within the realm of possibility — he and Giroux could essentially share the work in feasting on non-top-end competition. That could open up even more time against lesser opponents for Giroux, and that, too, could bode well for him in his attempts to re-establish himself as a good even-strength player.

All we know at this point is that Giroux is definitely going to keep his role on the top power play, and he should continue to get a lot of time there and succeed there. But the pieces are in place for the Flyers to make Giroux’s life easier this year at 5-on-5 if they think it’s best for the team. Of course, if that does happen, Giroux will have to reward their faith by way of a significant scoring bounce-back, or else the team is essentially wasting its highest-potential offensive minutes. But it seems like something that could be in the cards.

Worst-case scenario

It turns out that Giroux’s struggles over the past two seasons were just the beginning of a long, painful fall from the NHL’s elite. Even more than a year removed from his core surgery, Giroux still doesn’t look quite up to the speed he was once able to play at. While his even-strength production isn’t quite as bad as it was in 2016-17, Giroux still only scores like a bottom-six player at 5-on-5, essentially ending any chance in fans’ minds that he’ll ever be due for a bounce-back. Even worse, Giroux’s power-play production sags as well, as he and Brayden Schenn’s replacement in the high slot never quite establish the chemistry that those two had.

Giroux’s scoring totals drop towards the low 50s (per 82 games), and his play-driving ability, while respectable, isn’t nearly enough to prevent fans from remaining very concerned about his long-run outlook. With an expensive contract that runs until 2022 and a number of talented young players that are going to need extensions soon, Hextall quietly spends spring and summer 2018 looking behind the scenes at ways to get out of Giroux’s contract, be that via a trade or a buyout.

Best-case scenario

It turns out that Giroux’s struggles over the past two seasons did have a lot to do with his hip/abdominal injuries and the subsequent lengthy recovery from them. Giroux’s movements end up being much more smooth and fluid this year, and his performance on the ice is all the better for it. On the power-play, Giroux has zero trouble at all replicating his production from recent years without Schenn, and remains one of the league’s top power-play distributors and scorers. And at even strength, the points start showing up again, as a new offensive strategy and new linemates offensively help Giroux rediscover his offensive touch.

While he still isn’t quite the player he was in the first half of this decade, Giroux shows he’s still got high-end play in him, and he bounces back roughly to where he was in the the 2014-15 season — a good-if-not-quite-elite even-strength scorer who drives play well and is a true game-changer on the power play. That’s a no-doubt top-line center, one that should be the anchor of a playoff team, and one whose performance not only puts Flyers fans (and management) at ease a bit about the long-term fate of their captain, but also allows the Flyers to ease Giroux’s inevitable replacement — Nolan Patrick, of course — into NHL life, the way they’d probably like to be able to.