UNIONDALE ,NY- Coaches usually send nothing but platitudes to a team’s prized prospect in training camp. A poor start can be attributed to a lack of experience while solid play is sold as a harbinger of greatness to come.
But Flyers coach John Stevens delivered a not-so-subtle message to Claude Giroux in the summer, instructing the 2006 first-round pick to improve in the minor leagues before thinking about a promotion.
Giroux went to the AHL, where he became a ghost. No, the Hearst, Ontario native didn’t literally disappear. He joined the Philadelphia Phantoms and quickly emerged as one of the league’s most talented players, racking up 17 goals and 17 assists in just 33 games. That led to late a Christmas gift, as Giroux was called up and played his first game with the Flyers on Dec. 26, earning a spot on the team he hasn’t relinquished.
As he gets ready for help the Flyers go up against the potent Penguins in a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series that starts tonight, Giroux said his Phantoms stint was a boon for his career.
“It actually helped my game a lot being able to [log] a lot of ice time,” Giroux said after the Flyers 3-2 victory over the Islanders Saturday. “Playing on the power play, penalty kill, just playing in all those different situations helped my game.”
Stevens said he noticed the difference in Giroux’s all-around game immediately since his promotion. It also helps that Philadelphia boasts six 25-goal scorers, allowing Giroux to fill a complementary role. At 5-11, 179 pounds, Giroux provides speed as a right winger who also can win faceoffs and present different matchups.
Stevens successfully found a formal to incorporate Giroux’s skills into the
team framework, playing him alongside veteran Daniel Briere, a former All-Star game MVP. After a two-game stint with the Flyers last season that featured zero points, Giroux scored nine goals and logged 18 assists in 44 games since proving his worth as a complete player to a once-skeptical coaching staff.
“He’s playing at a high level every day,” Stevens said. “We always knew he could play with the puck. But it’s his ability to play without the puck that’s allowed him to be here.”
After turning 21 in January, Giroux finished strong, scoring four goals in Philadelphia’s final eight games, which were pressure-packed contests as the Flyers were fighting for position and home-ice advantage. Philadelphia ended up behind Pittsburgh in the battle for the fourth seed, though Giroux said the games’ intensity was a good test for the best-of-seven series to follow.
“It’s a lot different than during Christmas
time,” Giroux said. “The games are a lot tighter and you get less room with the puck. You have to make some quick decisions, but that’s part of hockey.”
Giroux enticed the Flyers to take him with the 22nd overall pick after scoring 48 goals as part of a 103-point season for Gatineau Olympiques as a junior player in 2005-06. He seemed destined to justify the high draft selection, scoring 48 goals in a 112-point season for Gatineau the next season before closing out the season in the AHL.
That success didn’t translate to training camp and the preseason. Giroux’s slow maturation forced the club to send him down an entire level, though he had to walk just a few hundred feet away, where the Phantoms play in the soon to be demolished Spectrum. Once the home to the Flyers’ Cup-winning teams, Giroux thrived on the same ice the Broad Street Bullies made famous three decades ago.
“During camp, playing defensively wasn’t really important for me,” Giroux said. “I learned playing in the AHL that if I wanted to play in the NHL, I really have to be responsible. I learned a lot by playing on the “PK” with the Phantoms and against the top lines.
His upbeat attitude and scoring touch allowed Giroux to re-cross the parking lot to play at the Wachovia Center, the Flyers’ current home. Before even being allowed to drink legally, Stevens saw signs that Giroux was ready to shed the prospect tag and became a regular contributor.
“He’s been a strong performer,” Stevens said. “I think he’s allowed us to get Danny really involved. [They’ve] had good chemistry and he’s shown the ability to be responsible without the puck. He’s certainly been a pleasant surprise and he’s a fixture on our team.”
Living away from home continues to be an off-ice challenge for Giroux. But he said Simon Gagne and Briere have helped in that department since all three are French- Canadians.
“It was a little easier to speak to them. They just understand how hard it is when you get in the league,” Giroux said. “Every day, they come to the rink and still have fun. It’s just a big motivation to see the passion they still have.
“Everyone in general has been nice and tried to show me a good path.”