A year after health problems led to the most disappointing season of his superb NHL career, Claude Giroux skated freely again and reestablished himself as one of the league's elite players.
At age 30.
And at a new position.
There are a lot of reasons the Flyers are headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but at the top of the list is Giroux's MVP-caliber season, which produced 34 goals, 68 assists, and 102 points — all personal bests. A life-long NHL center, he moved to left wing this season and was involved in a staggering 41 percent of the Flyers' goals.
"He's been the catalyst of this team all year long," said Mark Howe, a former Flyer who is the Detroit Red Wings' director of pro scouting. "In big times and big games, he's come up big all year."
He had more goals than Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and Patrick Kane, among many others. No one in the NHL had more assists, and he finished second in the league in points and third in faceoff percentage (58.6).
Oh, and he became the 11th player in NHL history to reach the 100-point mark for the first time at age 30 or older.
In addition to his glowing numbers, Giroux had a big influence in the career seasons of linemates Sean Couturier (31 goals, 76 points) and Travis Konecny (24 goals, 47 points). Konecny scored 20 goals in the 41 games in which he was on Giroux's line. He had four goals in the 40 games he wasn't with Giroux.
"He's definitely been a big part of my success this year, offensively," said Couturier, a hardworking center who collected 15 more goals and 37 more points than his previous career highs. "He can make a lot of plays with the puck that other guys can't. I just try to find the open area, and he's that good that'll he'll find you if you find the open space."
"When G has the puck, it's just a matter of getting to the right spot because he's going to put it on your tape," Konecny said.
Couturier has lessened Giroux's workload because he has been the player on that line who usually gets back first in the defensive end. But they have taken turns in that aspect of the game.
"Defensively, as a line, we try to all take responsibilities," said Couturier, whose line had right winger Michael Raffl in place of Konecny in the last two games. "If [Giroux] is the first guy back, he can play a little as a center and I can cover the wings and vice-versa, so we kind of have that nice chemistry where we can trust each other and swipe positions. I think that's what makes us successful."
Offensively, Giroux makes the line click.
"We try to cycle down low, create some space for him, and give him the puck and let him do what he does best," said Couturier, referring to Giroux's vision and his eye-opening creativity.
Giroux, a soft-spoken sort with a dry sense of humor, shrugs off his contributions. He appreciates the accolades, but he is driven by something besides personal accomplishments.
"It's all about the Cup," he said.
Watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl, he said, made a lasting impression.
"Seeing the parade … and how the city gets behind them, it's definitely a motivation that you want to be a part of," he said. "We know it's not going to be easy, but we're going to give everything we have."
Slowed by hip and abdominal surgery, Giroux produced just 14 goals, 58 points, and a minus-15 rating last season. The relentless, hellbent style that had become his trademark was missing.
"When your mind wants to do something but your body doesn't do it, it's frustrating," Giroux said.
This season, the body went from a broken-down Ford Pinto to a sleek-moving Corvette.
"He's skating better, and everything is working for him," Howe said. "It's hard to play this game when you're injured. He kept his mouth shut when some people were on his case and just kept going when he was [hurt]. He acted like a true pro and came back and responded this year."
Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, New Jersey's Taylor Hall, Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov, Boston's Brad Marchand, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar get thrown into the MVP talk with Giroux. He compares favorably. The Flyers captain has more points and a higher plus-minus rating (plus-28), and has contributed to a higher percentage of his team's goals than each of the others.
"For me, of the guys that I've seen, the players who have been most important to their team have been Taylor Hall and Claude Giroux," Howe said.
Hall will get strong MVP consideration because, some voters say, he found a way to be dominating on a team that struggled to score. They point out that Hall had 93 points and that the next-highest Devils scorer was Nico Hischier with 52 points. The implication is that Hall found a way to be dominating on a weak offensive team.
You could make an argument, however, that Giroux, unlike Hall, brought out the best in his linemates. Couturier and Konecny, the primary right winger on the line this season, flourished with Giroux as their linemate. And Raffl went on that line in the last two games and promptly scored a goal in each of them.
"I've played with Coots, played with Jake [Voracek], played with T.K., and they've made me a better player," said Giroux, currently the longest-tenured Philly athlete among the city's four major sports teams. "It's not the other way around. I really feel lucky to play with some good players."
Giroux scored 19 goals in the last 29 games and had points (eight goals, 11 assists) in the last 10. Compared with Giroux's 41.0 percent, Hall has been involved in 38.3 percent of the Devils' goals, which is about the same as MacKinnon (38 percent) — who led the Avalanche to a stunning 47-point turnaround — and Kopitar (38.8 percent). Malkin (36.3 percent), Kucherov (34.5 percent), and Marchand (31.8 percent) are also below Giroux.
(Connor McDavid was involved in a staggering 47.2 percent of his team's goals, but Edmonton didn't make the playoffs so his MVP chances figure to be low.)
Howe said Giroux is "the guy who makes their power play go. And whenever the team is struggling and needs a big play to get back in the game, he's usually the guy who gives it to them."
The Flyers had a lot of up-and-down stretches this season. They lost 10 straight early in the season, and through games played Dec. 3, only two teams had fewer points. Giroux called a team meeting and made sure no one pointed fingers. His teammates listened. They ended their losing streak Dec. 4, and from that date until the end of the season, the Flyers went 34-15-7 for the fifth-most points (75) in the NHL.
And, now, they are back in the playoffs, trying to dethrone their bitter rivals, the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, in the first round.
Howe, who calls Boston and Tampa Bay the Eastern Conference favorites, said the Penguins will have their hands full with the Flyers. "When they're playing their best, the Flyers are a tough team to beat," he said. "It's not like the days of the past, where there were always one or two weak seeds in the tournament. There aren't any weak seeds. … If you're in the playoffs now, you really have a legitimate chance to win it."