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Claude Giroux’s strong start to the 2021-22 season is both good news and bad news for the Flyers

Flyers fans should be thrilled with Claude Giroux’s stellar start to the 2021-22 season, but his strong play could cost the Flyers down the line.

Philadelphia Flyers v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s hard to believe Claude Giroux is about to turn 34 years old this coming January. It seems like yesterday that the six-time All-Star was regarded as one of the NHL’s rising young stars.

In what is now his 15th season in the NHL, it would hardly be shocking for Giroux to see a serious statistical regression. Father Time is undefeated after all, and every player who has ever taken an NHL rink eventually experienced a decline — especially once they hit their 30s.

Giroux, though, seems to be playing some of the best hockey of his career.

The Philadelphia Flyers are only six games into their 2021-22 season, but in those six games, Giroux has been nothing short of remarkable. He already has four goals and as many assists under his belt, and judging by some of the plays he’s made in the season’s early going, there are probably a lot more points to come.

The Flyers’ top line of Giroux, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny has been one of the best in the NHL to start the season. Not only has the trio posted stellar scoring numbers — they’ve already combined for 10 goals and 13 assists — but their advanced metrics have been impressive as well. Through 67 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together, the line has logged a 57.02 Corsi For percentage, a 57.14 Goals For percentage and a 52.63 Expected Goals For percentage.

Unquestionably, Giroux has had a lot to do with the line’s success (though it also helps that Couturier has emerged as one of the most complete centers in hockey).

This isn’t the first time Giroux’s experienced a resurgence of some kind in his career. After a four-year regression in scoring numbers from 2013-14 to 2016-17, Giroux put together his most statistically productive season as an NHLer in 2017-18 with a career-high 34 goals and 102 points.

Currently, Giroux is on a 109-point pace. And, again, he turns 34 (!) in January.

Giroux’s continued productivity is obviously an excellent development for the Flyers. Thanks largely to his exceptional play, the team is off to a strong start to the season and appear more than capable of contending with some of the league’s top squads — they’ve already taken down the Bruins and Connor McDavid’s Oilers.

But there’s a problem.

Giroux is in the final year of his contract (worth $8,275,000 annually) and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. And right now, he is not playing like someone who’s bound to take a major discount.

As things currently stand, the Flyers have precisely $136 (one hundred and thirty-six dollars) in projected cap space (per CapFriendly), and they are not expected to get much relief in the offseason. If anything, general manager Chuck Fletcher may need to perform some financial gymnastics in order to keep Giroux in a Flyers sweater, especially with Couturier and Joel Farabee both receiving major pay raises next season.

If the Flyers were to let all of their pending unrestricted free agents — including Rasmus Ristolainen, Justin Braun, Keith Yandle and Martin Jones — walk in free agency, they would be left with roughly $14 million to re-sign Giroux and fill roster holes, which doesn’t give them a ton wiggle room in the construction of their 2022-23 roster.

Several cheap, young prospects like Cam York, Wade Allison and Morgan Frost have been pounding on the door to earn roles in the NHL, and their elevation to the big club would be crucial to the Flyers’ offseason cap management. But relying on young players to fill roster holes can be risky. If they prove unfit to contribute consistently in the NHL, the Flyers could be forced to look externally to fill the voids, which can end up being costly.

Still, it’s not totally unthinkable that reliable veterans can be signed at a fair value. Derick Brassard is a prime example of this. The Flyers signed the 34-year-old to a one-year contract worth just $825,000 over the summer, and he’s averaging a point per game to start the season while centering the second line in Kevin Hayes’ absence. Despite his strong play, though, a player like Brassard probably shouldn’t be counted on to perform at such a high clip over a full season. What Brassard is doing now may not be witchcraft, but it’s likely not sustainable either.

While the Flyers’ cap situation is far from ideal, there is one variable that could squash all anxiety about Giroux’s future with the team: Giroux himself.

It’s no secret that Giroux wants to play out his entire career Philadelphia. He has never played for any other NHL franchise, and at this point, he’s fully cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Flyers sweater. While he may not be playing like someone who deserves a pay cut, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that he could willingly accept a discount in order to maximize the Flyers’ chances at winning their first championship in nearly half a century.

But that’s far from a guarantee. Two years ago, Joe Pavelski willingly left the San Jose Sharks — the only team he had ever played for — months after they fell just two games shy of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. If Giroux feels he’d have better odds at winning a Stanley Cup elsewhere, he could take the same path.

However, that’s not something Giroux, or the Flyers, are worried about at this time. Both he and the team have agreed to wait until the offseason to negotiate a potential contract extension, and so far, Giroux is proving to the Flyers that he is still every bit as good as he was when he was in his prime.

It’s hard to envision the Flyers letting their captain walk away for nothing, but keeping Giroux around may end up being far more expensive than anyone anticipated.