The Flyers are a mess defensively, a far cry from last year. The reasons for that have been myriad, with the defense screwing up almost as often as the forward core that was so highly touted entering this year. For every egregious Robert Hägg turnover in the defensive zone, you have a poor backcheck or overly-aggressive forecheck that destroys any semblance of structure the team possesses. With Sean Couturier missing a prolonged stretch at the beginning of the year, it would seem to the uninformed observer that this team lacked any elite defensive options outside of Ivan Provorov. Enter an unlikely hero: Claude Giroux.
The captain that a good chunk of Flyers fans often refer to as “soft” has been one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL this year, and his performance isn’t all that shocking. After accruing a negative defensive value by Evolving Hockey’s GAR metric every year of his career, Giroux decided in his explosive 2017-18 season that he was going to be an elite two-way presence on the wing, and that was the end of it. Since the move to the outside, #28 has had a positive overall value defensively, and this year looks to be more of the same. After spending a long, productive career playing as an undersized center, the reduced physicality and greater emphasis on stick work along the wing has made Captain Claude a dynamo who can contribute to the team in a variety of ways besides the scoresheet. By the end of this article, if you haven’t joined the #Giroux4Selke mob headed by yours truly, I will be disappointed (in myself, not you).
Looking purely at defensive GAR, Giroux ranks 14th in even strength defensive value and 20th overall among all forwards. In terms of rate-adjusted stats that are a bit simpler to understand, his xGA/60 is 33rd among heavy-minutes forwards (min 180 TOI) and 14th among wingers in that group. When you compare those numbers to the overall marks of the team, the picture for why Giroux should be in the discussion as the league’s best two-way forward becomes clearer.
The isolated impact of Sean Couturier’s Selke season is shown above. The team was significantly better both ways with Coots on the ice, and his reputation as an elite defensive player finally resulted in an award (likely due to the Flyers finally becoming a good team). Now, let’s have a look at Giroux’s impact this season:
Whoa. That’s pretty good, even if the sample size is quite small. For comparison, guys like Mark Stone have impact on their team in the same territory. Among those fourteen wingers I listed earlier, Giroux is first in points per game and has comparable offensive isolates, despite not being an elite shot generator (last in CF/60 by a considerable margin). How has he been this good? Well, as always, he passes the puck like few in the NHL can. According to tracking from Corey Sznajder (an incomplete data set, but data nonetheless) Giroux has had more primary shot assists than any of his defensive contemporaries save for Tomas Tatar, who plays within the Montreal “put literally everything on net” system. To have that kind of shot assist rate on a team that refuses to shoot the puck is remarkable. This is the statistical profile of a player who has strong 200-foot results, and it’s worthy of Selke discussion.
To review some game tape in relatively timely fashion, I sat down and watched Giroux’s five best performances of the season in terms of xGA. These were games against opponents of varying difficulties and the outcomes were fairly evenly split, so I feel this is a decent sample to pull from.
This little snippet of the end of this shift is a microcosm of what’s made Giroux a different (and better!) player in a reduced role. The captain was centering this line of Scott Laughton and JVR and shows some great awareness in the neutral zone, blocking a passing seam that opened up to prevent a breakout. He finished out the shift by harassing a pair of Boston skaters in the offensive zone before tailing off to the bench, allowing for a clean change. Little things like these are the plays that were missing from the flashier days of #28’s career, but he does them with regularity. In this game alone, I tracked breakout pass prevention and found that he led the team in those plays with eight such occurrences.
The above is a great example of how Giroux’s approach to puck support has evolved. In the past, you’d see him drift out towards the blue line waiting for the breakout pass, but here he waits, anticipates where the Boston system dictates the puck will go, and strips it cleanly in stride without hesitation. Later in the shift the Bruins took a penalty attempting to win another board battle with Giroux; these plays are the kind that can change games, even if the skill behind them isn’t particularly flashy.
Giroux’s coverage in the defensive zone rarely lapses anymore. He covers the trailer beautifully here before swinging around, pressuring the man at the point and forcing a turnover. Now that the Flyers are a deeper team, Giroux has more opportunities to prey upon mistakes, rather than always having to cheat for offense. His fluidity in switching coverage is among the best in the league since moving to the wing, and it’s been key in creating this shift in mentality. Rather than always having to cover back for a pinching defender, G is allowed to play his position with less focus on others. This lessens the physical toll he’s receiving, but it also means that he’s allowed to be more of an aggressive rover in the neutral zone, forcing turnovers and creating positive defense by nullifying offense.
Claude Giroux presents a unique profile for the Selke this season and should at worst be a finalist if he continues his current pace. The captain possesses the production, analytical profile and impact on tape of contenders from years past. In addition to his name recognition, offensive production and star power (all of which are key in obtaining the award), Giroux plays a combo of center and left wing, making him slightly more palatable to voters who believe that only centers should be eligible for the title of “best two-way forward.” His continued improvement in the art of producing takeaways and stymieing breakouts should warrant recognition from the league and Flyers fans alike.
Unconvinced? Drop me a line on Twitter or comment below. I’ll be waiting.