Claude Giroux emerging as leader of the new-look Flyers
Never mind the title of that FX show, it's not always sunny in Philadelphia. The glow of the Flyers' playoff upset of the hated Penguins has been clouded by disappointment, injuries and free agent departures.
After their ouster by the Devils in the second round, Philly's defense took a huge hit when Matt Carle signed with Tampa Bay and GM Paul Holmgren's bold offer sheet grab at Shea Weber was countered by Nashville. Concussion-plagued captain Chris Pronger hasn't played since last November and his career may be over. Blueliner Andrej Meszaros tore his Achilles tendon while training and could miss next season. Throw in Jaromir Jagr signing with Dallas, the doubts about goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's ability to handle pressure, and the trade that sent promising winger James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for young defenseman Luke Schenn (who'll try to help offset Pronger's absence), and you have a team with its fair share of question marks. With the Rangers adding All-Star forward Rick Nash and the Penguins expecting Sidney Crosby to play his first full season since 2009-10, the Flyers face some stiff competition in the always tough Atlantic Division.
All of the above means that Philly will be counting on winger Claude Giroux more than ever next season.
A two-time All-Star coming off career-highs in goals (28) and points (93), Giroux, 24, has emerged as one of the NHL's brightest young stars. After the trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and with Pronger playing in only 13 games last season, Giroux quickly became the go-to guy on a team that topped the NHL with eight rookies who skated in 20 or more games. Despite a completely different atmosphere in the locker room, the Flyers claimed the fifth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and then knocked off the Stanley Cup favorites in the first round.
"At first it was kind of weird," Giroux says. "That was our story last year, like every time somebody would get hurt or we would need somebody to step up, they would."
Against Pittsburgh, Giroux stepped up by posting six goals and eight assists in a wild series that saw the two teams score a combined total of 56 goals in the six games. He also dropped the gloves with Crosby. Giroux hadn't fought since January (against Dylan Reese of the Islanders); Crosby not since squaring up with the Stars' Matt Niskanen on Nov. 3, 2010. Their Game 3 scrum and fight amped up the already heated rivalry as the Flyers took a commanding three-games-to-none lead.
"Every time we play Pittsburgh it's intense," says Giroux. "It's, I don't know, well I'll just say when I wake up from my nap, it's pretty easy to go to the rink and go play hockey (against them)."
Giroux was no stranger to rivalry or challenges. They helped propel him to the NHL.
When he was 15, Giroux moved from Hearst, Ontario, to Ottawa to play Bantam hockey with the Cumberland Barons. Despite his progressive improvement, he was passed up in the OHL Priority Draft because he was deemed to be too small.
"Really my dream was to play in the NHL, and I didn't get drafted in the OHL," he says. "I just wanted to play hockey and I didn't think that was going to be possible."
Giroux later received an open tryout with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and signed a contract with them after catching head coach Benoit Groulx's eye. During his first season (2005-06), Giroux contested highly publicized center Angelo Esposito for the league's rookie scoring title, winning by a mere four points -- 103 to 99, with each player scoring 39 goals -- and receiving some national attention of his own.
"We really loved playing against each other," Giroux says about his junior rival. "It was just like you wanted to prove that you were better and I think it was good for me and him."
Gatineau's new All-Star kept getting better, especially his crisp playmaking abilities. During his three-year tenure on the northern banks of the Ottawa River, Giroux never finished a season with less than 64 assists and 103 points. He also won the Guy Lafleur Trophy, awarded to the QMJHL's Most Valuable Player, after leading his team to the 2008 Memorial Cup tournament with 51 postseason points (including 34 assists).
"It was such a good time," he says. "We had a team that was so close together, that every time we would go on the ice, everyone would play for each other."
The Olympiques' leading scorer for three straight seasons, Giroux still wasn't highly touted when he entered the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. When Bobby Clarke took the podium to announce Philadelphia's selection of the undersized forward with the 22nd overall pick, the then-Flyers GM
"There's no way I thought Philly would ever draft me," Giroux says. But Flyers coach Peter Laviolette thought of him as a player who could flourish in the "new NHL" that was now emphasizing passing and speed, as well as positioning to counteract size.
"You just need to be fast and be able to find a way to be at the right place on the ice," Giroux says.
When he entered the NHL in 2008, Giroux lived with veteran center Danny Briere, learning how to be a professional and motivate himself during a grueling 82-game season. He passed his lessons on after he moved into an apartment with rookie Brayden Schenn last year. Giroux, an assistant captain, may not be the most vocal player on the ice, but he leads by example and is a player the youmg Flyers respect and look up to. More than a few people believe he should be the Flyers' next captain.
"I watch [Briere] and Giroux on the ice. Obviously Giroux, he's in a league of his own," says winger Eric Wellwood, who scored nine points in 24 games as a rookie last season. "They're both similar size to me and they both use their size to their advantage."
Giroux has no problem throwing the body even if his is only 5-11 and 172-pounds. After his fight with Crosby, he put his physicality on display once again during the Flyers' Game 6 victory that eliminated the Penguins. Prior to the game, Giroux had told Laviolette, "I want that first shift" and found himself in the faceoff circle getting hacked by Crosby at the initial drop of the puck. Within seconds, the Wells Fargo Center exploded as Giroux leveled Pittsburgh's prized scorer near the Penguins' blueline. Only 27 seconds later, the Flyers' faithful rose from their seats again when Giroux sent a wrist shot over goalie Marc Andre-Fleury's right shoulder. The rout was on.
"To be honest, it happened so quick that I couldn't describe it," Giroux says about the Flyers' great start to the game. "It was just kind of a moment where you black out for a little bit and everything happens the right way."
Unfortunately for the Flyers, Giroux had to play against New Jersey in the next series with a fractured wrist, the result of Crosby's slashes. "During the game, you don't think about [the pain], you just go out there and play hockey," he says. "Afterwards it's the worst."
After winning the opener, the Flyers lost four straight to the Devils. Giroux was suspended for the final match after illegally hitting winger Danius Zubrus in the head. The Flyers looked flat without him. He ended up having surgery on both wrists, but now that the casts have come off, he's back working with Tony Greco, his trainer of the past seven years, preparing for training camp and what promises to be a tough campaign. But if there are clouds over Philly at the moment, Giroux sees through them.
"Everyday at practice, I still learn something. It's the way hockey works, it's all about learning and knowing what to do with it," says Giroux. "We're a really young team, so the future looks bright."