By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
The upcoming 2020-21 season will present challenges to all teams across the league. The Flyers are no exception. They will have to try to build on last season’s success, climbing back into the playoff picture convincingly as the season progressed, but will go through the new season without one of their leading defensemen in role and ice time from a season ago.
There’s also the core, which continues to remain a constant over the years. It’s been several to say the least.
Claude Giroux has been captain of the Flyers for eight seasons, his ninth set to begin on Jan. 13, the day after his 33rd birthday. Giroux’s career has had its peaks and valleys from a production standpoint, but he’s remained durable, very rarely missing action, and is respected as a leader by his teammates. To him, the age he will reach one day before the season opener is nothing but a number.
“I’m not worried about my age right now,” Giroux said on Wednesday. “You can keep asking me those questions. I feel great right now and I’m excited for the season.”
This is just another one of the questions that has followed Giroux around for years now. His production progressively dipped after the most successful year of his career to date in 2011-12. He had 93 points that season in 77 games and the Flyers entered the playoffs poised for a long run. After breezing through the first round of the playoffs by opening up a 3-0 series lead against the Penguins, they scored a Game 1 win in the second round before dropping four straight against the Devils. Giroux was suspended for the final game of the series. It was the last time the Flyers were that deep in the playoffs until this past season.
That eight-year drought without a series win followed Giroux specifically. He shouldered more of the blame for the team’s lack of success as the captain of the team. Fair or unfair, it comes with the territory of wearing a letter and having to answer to the media on a nightly basis.
That said, Giroux has rebounded from poor production before. After his worst offensive season – the 2016-17 season where Giroux scored 14 goals and 58 points – he followed it up with a season worthy of the Hart Trophy. Giroux scored a career-high 34 goals, capping it off with a hat trick on the final day of the regular season. He had a career-high 68 assists, leading the league in that category, and 102 points.
The questions about his production disappeared for a while, as he carried that production over to 2018-19 with 22 goals and 85 points, but his production dipped again in 2019-20 with 21 goals and 53 points, the lowest point total of his career outside of his first two seasons in the league and the lockout-shortened 48-game season in 2012-13.
Couple that with a less-than-stellar playoff where he scored just one goal and had eight points in 16 games, and the questions start right back up. After all, this is the captain, the leader of the team. He’s expected to produce, right?
There was some speculation that Giroux and other veterans weren’t in the best shape when the NHL returned this summer. Alain Vigneault noted that as Giroux and other veteran players get older, they may need to change their training to stay in the best shape possible as they get older. Lower production plus comments from your head coach on a different training regimen, and you see those questions only intensify.
Giroux has always handled adversity head-on. He’s up front about the team’s struggles and has, unfairly, endured the brunt of poor management decisions at the NHL level – all while the team was building a successful prospect pipeline that makes up much of the roster today – and multiple coaching changes have tarnished Giroux’s time as a Flyer.
So when the questions about his age started on Wednesday, Giroux answered them with a determined look.
“I think as you get older, you learn what works for you and what doesn’t work for you,” Giroux said. “You try to adjust and put yourself in a position to succeed. With that, you can modify your workouts through the summer.”
Giroux said he has been able to skate for most of the offseason in Ottawa and feels lucky to have been able to get on the ice regularly.
Perhaps the best thing for the Flyers will be a determined leader in Giroux. Perhaps the best thing is that he is dealing with these questions about age and lower production. It drives and motivates him to be better and to be a better leader for the rest of his teammates.
Making your longest playoff run in nearly a decade didn’t hurt either. Giroux talked about the feeling coming into the season, especially with a lot of the same roster still here.
“I think the way the season ended left a bad taste in my mouth,” Giroux said. “A lot of players on the team feel like we could have went a little further last year. It’s a learning experience for us, what we did in the playoffs. Knowing what we did that worked and what we did that didn’t work. I think it’s important that we talk about those things as a team and just learn from it.
“I think that’s going to be an advantage to us – having the same coaching staff, having the same players,” Giroux said. “We added a few guys, but to know that we have a base already. Everybody knows what kind of game we’re trying to play. Being able to jump into the season and being able to play with the guys you have played with before, there won’t be a lot of players that you haven’t played with before and you have to get the chemistry going. Whoever we’re playing on the line with, you know a little bit about the guy and you’re able to adjust to who you are playing with. Hopefully it’s an advantage to us.”
Giroux is another member of this team that has gone through a shortened season, it turns out his first as captain of the Flyers, and watched how quickly it can turn south in a hurry. Every team will be in the same position with no preseason games, which makes it more important to be ready from the start, especially with all of the games taking place within the division.
“With no preseason games, you have to make sure you are ready to go,” Giroux said. “With game shape, the only way to do that is to play games. We’ve been scrimmaging every day here. Practice as long as we can and get our legs going. Right now, it’s going pretty well, but we’ve got to keep the pace going.
“When you play those teams more often and with back-to-backs against the same team, it’s going to be a good rivalry. It’s going to be a good game. To be honest, it’ll be the first time for everybody to do this. I’m not too sure what to expect. I’m sure it will be intense hockey. Teams are going to be fighting for playoff spots. You won’t have games against other divisions or other conferences. Every game is going to be huge.”
Giroux is going to be at the forefront of that again. He always has been, as the visible leader on the front line, the player wearing the ‘C.’ Perhaps that motivation to show that his age is merely a number will spike the other numbers too.