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Meltzer's Musings: On Giroux, the 2015-16 Season and the Off-Season

April 25, 2016, 11:38 AM ET [488 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The 2015-16 Philadelphia Flyers were unable to upset the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs but came within a 1-0 score in Game 6 from forcing a seventh game after trailing the series three games to zero. They had no margin for error, as witnessed by the outcomes of Games 1 and 6 in particular.

Special team was the Flyers' undoing in the series: the power play in every game but Game 4, and the penalty kill in Games 1 (despite a 5-for-6 that night), 2, and 3.

In upcoming blogs, I will discuss various observations from the season just past as well as starting to look ahead to next season. Today, I will start with Flyers' captain Claude Giroux.

Unfortunately, there is often a tendency among sports fans to need a scapegoat or two to blame. Giroux and goaltender Steve Mason are the easy designated whipping boys despite the fact that both players were instrumental in why the team made the playoffs in the first place.

Today on social media and newspaper columns, there's a lot of Giroux bashing and people who suddenly want the player -- still a point-per-game career player in the playoffs, just two seasons removed from being a Hart Trophy finalist, and still in the prime years of his career -- traded.

Trading Giroux would be a great idea; that is, if the Flyers wanted to scrap Ron Hextall's thus-far-successful retooling plan and instead tear everything down and do a half-decade-or-more rebuild.

It would be a fine plan; if the reward for making sure there was team-wide buy-in to a rookie coach's system and staying positive through some pretty rough patches of the season was to turn around and remove the central figure of a still-maturing leadership group.

Teams win or lose as a whole. Giroux by far did not have his "A" game in the Capitals' series. Washington deserves a big share of the credit for shutting him down but Giroux himself needed to be more effective in battling through the checking. Hockey is a bottom-line, no-excuses sport and the captain and goalie are always going to get excessive credit or excessive blame. However, anyone who truly thinks Giroux's rough series was due to lack of effort, heart or leadership ability is way off base.

Giroux was clearly not himself in the series or, really, for much of the latter part of the stretch drive. He denied having any significant injuries but there still seemed to be something more than just the Caps' often-airtight checking going on. He took a higher-than-usual number of maintenance days off from practices and morning skates in recent months.

Normally dominant on faceoffs, he still won more than he lost (50.6 percent) in the series but he seemed to be laboring at the dot. His shots, when he wasn't pulling up or electing to pass, didn't have much on them. Normally a wizard on offensive zone entries, he was contained much more easily than is usually the case even against top defensive clubs.

Giroux's offensive stats were down this season but I thought he had a better overall campaign this year than in 2014-15. He showed growth and maturity as a captain. There were any number of times the team could have gone off the rails, yet they always seemed to right their ship and start moving forward again. Giroux owned up to frustration at times, including during the Caps series, but there wasn't panic in his play.

Leadership is not just one player, but it starts with a team's best players. As regular readers know, I detest the term "desperation" because it is actually a negative word that implies panic and lack of organization. What teams actually strive for is "focused urgency," and Giroux more often than not set a good tone.

Is there still room for team-wide improvement in that area? Yes. Far too many games against teams beneath the Flyers in the standings lacked focused urgency until, trailing, the Flyers scrambled late in games (a few times successfully) to rescue points. The team often overrelied on their goalies in those game and, overall, too often failed to close out games in the way legitimate contenders tend to play with a late late.

That's not on Giroux specifically but it is the responsibility of the leadership group to correct an issue like that -- it can't come just from the coaches -- and is a carryover challenge for next season. That's why I used the term "still-maturing leadership group" rather than "matured." There's still room for further growth.

This season, Giroux set an example by buying into Dave Hakstol's system and showing a lot of attention to detail. He worked hard away from the puck, did not cheat out of the zone early, blocked shots and killed penalties. He took Gostisbehere under his wing and pushed the rookie to maximize his offensive gifts (almost too a fault, because other teams started to adjust to the pass out to the point).

One periodically heard grumbling of the second season of the Craig Berube tenure was that the Flyers top players would often overstay their shifts. That was largely addressed this season in Hakstol's first year. There were times where Giroux's line had to get right back out there or took long shifts but that was usually dictate by the time and score of the game.

Defensively, I thought Giroux had a good season and, in fact, sacrificed some points to play a responsible two-way game.

That sort of thing does not always show in plus-minus rating (which is an area where some mainstream beat writers sometimes still bark up the wrong tree). Giroux has generally been a pretty good two-way player during his career but is considerably savvier defensively at age 28 (despite the "disappointing minus-eight regular season rating and minus-two in the playoffs one columnist cited) than he was in going plus-20 in 2010-11 when the team still had Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen anchoring the top two blueline pairs.

In the playoffs, the Flyers had to work with what they had. Shayne Gostisbehere was their only high-end puck-mover from the back end, although Andrew MacDonald made some good first passes. Mark Streit was stoic about it but clearly laboring physically (he only had a brief period all season in which he ever looked like himself). Hakstol pulled the plug on Evgeny Medvedev before the stretch drive and never went back to him except when injuries or other absences dictated it.

The core of defensive defensemen -- Radko Gudas and Nick Schultz especially, but with Brandon Manning also competing his tail off -- did their jobs well in terms of blocked shots and getting involved physically. They did yeoman work in the trenches when the Flyers got hemmed in, as did the other starting defensemen, but the Caps usually had little to fear in terms of Philly breakouts or defensemen joining the attack.

With the exception of Game 4, when both goals came from the point, Washington was usually able to neutralize Gostisbehere and prevent Philly from doing much of anything off the rush and especially in generating breakout with speed. That absolutely hampered the ability of Giroux and company to create offense.

In terms of the Flyers' power play failures, it was one big, collective problem. Giroux was part of it but to pin it all on his is inaccurate and unfair.

Unlike 2014-15, Jakub Voracek wasn't himself pretty much all year on the power play -- his one power play goal for the season was a dismaying total considering how many plays get set up for him to one-time or sweep across the slot moving to his left. Gostisbehere was well-scouted. Only on a few occasions was he either wide open or able to create room for himself.

Simmonds is a player who largely depends on teammates getting him deflection, or rebound opportunities in front of the net or cross-ice slam-dunks from near the left post. His swing-out play from the left of the goal line has rarely worked over the last three seasons, and the Caps were happy to concede that particular puck rotation as often as the Flyers wanted it. As soon as Simmonds would get the puck along the goal line, Holtby would seal off the short side and the penalty killers would seal off all passing lanes.

As the series progressed, the Flyers tried moving Brayden Schenn around the offensive zone (rotating to the right side up high rather than in his usual spot near the left hash marks and over the middle). It was a good idea in theory to open the ice a little bit more but the Flyers had so much trouble with entries and retrievals that they never really got set up well enough to see if Schenn as a right-side option would work.

I will say, though, that even though the pucks were not going in at all for Giroux or Wayne Simmonds or Schenn or Voracek (save for his Game 2 goal where he turned a broken rush into a goal with a little help from a Schenn pick) that they did not fall into panic mode and go off-system, which was no doubt noticed by Hakstol.

The Flyers needed to be more creative in finding space and time to make plays, and that happened very rarely. But on the flip side, everyone paid the price to apply back pressure and there wasn't a ton of low-percentage risk-taking that created excessive odd-man rushes for the Capitals. One that did bite the Flyers was Voracek getting burned in the third period of Game 1, on what turned into a late insurance goal for the Caps off an odd-man rush.

Overall, at five-on-five, with the exception of Game 5, play was generally pretty even. The Flyers deserve some collective credit for that, including Giroux. They weren't creating much but they also weren't giving up much against a very dangerous and deep Caps team.

Over the balance of the series, Barry Trotz was very comfortable with having Nicklas Bäckström's line go head-to-head with Giroux's as much as possible. It must be said that Bäckström by far had a better series than Giroux did.

However, the loss of Sean Couturier for the series very much had a ripple effect throughout the Flyers' lineup, including on Giroux's line. The Flyers really don't have another player who can do the things that Couturier does. He can change a game for the positive without putting up a point (not to mention the fact that he was nearly a point-per-game player when healthy over the latter portion of the regular season).

The mistake that many fans make -- as do far too many of my journalist colleagues, especially ones who don't watch a lot of hockey -- is to view the sport like a preschool puzzle (i.e. comprised solely of a few giant pieces that easily fit in a molded frame) rather than a jigsaw puzzle with many, many small pieces that have to interlock to build the picture.

The 2015-16 Flyers were a team that fit together much better by the end of the year than when they started. The head coach and the leadership group deserve credit, because there were no significant roster additions all year apart from minor league recalls who did a good job.

The Flyers ultimately weren't complete enough yet to beat a deeper Washington Capitals team because they had very little margin for error even before the opening faceoff of Game 1 was dropped. Could Giroux and the other big names have done more throughout the series? Could Giroux or other big-name players apart from Michal Neuvirth or the Game 1 version of Mason have carried the team through at least one game? The answer to both questions is yes.

That does not, however, mean that Giroux had a bad season or that he's "not a leader", "not an elite player" (check the NHL scoring leader board for the 2010s) or any other supposed shortcoming based on a small sample size of games against a top-notch opponent.

I will close today's Musings with this: If the 2016-17 season started with all NHL rosters frozen as is, the Flyers would still be a playoff bubble team over an 82-game schedule. Thankfully, it will not. For Ron Hextall, the next stages of his long-term team-building plan are going to be crucial.

It is one thing to stockpile draft picks and prospects. It's quite another to develop them properly and know when the time is right to start integrating them as pieces of the NHL puzzle. Hextall preaches patience and gradual development, which is a sound strategy that is thus far paying off. This will be the subject of an upcoming series of blogs, but I will say for now that perhaps the most encouraging sign of the 2015-16 season was the widespread progress of prospects at all levels of the development chain. In the meantime, the NHL club made the playoffs with only Gostisbehere (and to lesser extents, Manning, Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins) as players graduating from prospects to NHLers.

Increasingly, there are going to be tougher and tougher decisions to make about when the time is right to integrate prospects into NHL plans. For instance, most people think Ivan Provorov is a lock for the Flyers next season. Hextall, however, has stuck by the mantra that it's going to have to be earned out of camp. We will see.

Let's play through that scenario. It would be great if Provorov has a dominating training camp in September and makes it a no-brainer to put him in the NHL in 2016-17. But what if he has another uneven camp, like he did as an 18-year-old this season? While it's generally true there's no such as a player being "too ready", there is also a not-insignificant risk of stagnation if he plays another WHL season, since the AHL is a non-option due to the antiquated CHL-to-AHL age restrictions.

Travis Konecny is perhaps a better example. It is very tempting to picture him in the NHL next season with his skill level; of which the Flyers saw flashes in the preseason. Konecny was a 100-point player in the OHL this season and showed dynamic potential at the WJC. But he still needs to add more strength to his frame and may not be ready to handle the physical demands of the NHL yet for an 82-game season especially given the way he tries to play like a "little big man."

There will no doubt be some lengthy discussions about those very topics and deciding what would be best for Konecny and for the Flyers in both the short-term and long-term. A lot can and will happen between now and October but if that roster decision had to be made today, I suspect Hextall would lean toward one additional OHL season in Sarnia and WJC for Canada.

That probably wouldn't make fans happy to read, but the decision does not, in fact, have to be made for five-plus months. As long as Hextall keeps an open mind as well as a critical eye on where players like Provorov and Konecny truly stand come early October, that is all anyone can ask.

As the summer approaches, the Flyers will try to open more cap space to fit in some other useful pieces. It would be nice to add some more size and skill -- in combination with one another -- to the roster as well as at least one more veteran leader to the leadership group.

There are also internal cap dollars to figure out. Impending restricted free agent and arbitration-eligible Schenn has a tricky contract situation to sort out. Ryan White is an unrestricted free agent. Raises kick in for Voracek, Couturier and Michael Raffl next season.
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