Skating in on a breakaway during overtime of a contest Philadelphia had to win in order to inch one step closer to locking down a playoff spot, Claude Giroux decided to get a bit creative. So, as he made his way towards Anton Khudobin, the Flyers captain faked as though he was going to slip the puck back between his legs for a Marek Malik-esque tally, then deftly pulled the puck to his backhand and shelved it over the outstretched arm of the Boston Bruins netminder.
If it wasn’t the goal of the season, it’s certainly on the short list. It was a gorgeous marker with a cheeky finish. And it was exactly the kind of thing Giroux likely wouldn’t have attempted last season. Not in a campaign when it seemed nothing could go right, not in a season in which he eventually finished with some of the lowest full-season totals of his career and definitely not at a time when there were questions about whether or not he still had it. No, that Giroux, the 2016-17 Giroux, likely would have gone with the high percentage play, trying to simply fire a shot to beat Khudobin.
But the 2017-18 Giroux, well, he’s doing his best to ensure no one remembers there was ever a campaign where his ability to remain a top scorer in the NHL was questioned. He’s succeeding, too. And his statistical success is all the more incredible when considering it was this time last season when Giroux was playing out the final few games of another disappointing campaign.
During the 2016-17 campaign, Giroux couldn’t have used any amount of his $9-million salary to buy a break, and he finished the campaign with a scant 14 goals and 58 points, which were his lowest totals since his third season in the league. Worse yet, though, Giroux’s down year was the low point in a string of three seasons that had seen him go from legitimate top-scoring threat to mid-level point producer. Since 2014-15, Giroux’s numbers steadily declined, seeing him post successive totals of 73, 67 and 58 points. It was a far cry from the three consecutive point-per-game-or-better seasons Giroux had managed from 2011-12 to 2013-14 — a span of three combined campaigns that saw Giroux as the league’s top scorer.
That’s the Giroux the NHL has watched this season, though, and this has been the best individual season of his career in about every conceivable way. Matter of fact, following Sunday’s tilt, this is the best statistical campaign of his career. His overtime tally saw him set a new career-best with 29 goals, he had already reached a new career high by registering 66 assists and the two points – both goals – Sunday were his 94th and 95th and saw him set a new benchmark for points in a campaign. Almost more remarkable, though, is how much of the Flyers’ offense Giroux has managed to contribute throughout the season.
Entering Monday, with three games remaining in Philadelphia’s campaign, Giroux has been as impactful to his team’s offense as any player in the league. Of course, Oilers wunderkind Connor McDavid continues to pace the league when it comes to team-based production percentages — he has 18.4 percent of the Oilers’ goals, has earned a point on 46.1 percent of Edmonton’s total offense and 34.1 percent of those points are of the primary variety — but Giroux isn't all that far back. In fact, while his 29 goals only account for 12.3 percent of the Flyers’ offense, which ranks 30th as a team-based percentage, and his primary point percentage ranks 13th at 25.8 percent, Giroux is the only player other than McDavid with a point of any variety on at least 40 percent of team goals.
Undoubtedly, the move to the wing seems to have played no small part in Giroux’s success this season. A center for the majority of his big-league career, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol made the decision to move Giroux onto Sean Couturier’s wing and shift the defensive-minded pivot into a top-line role to start the season. The change has worked wonders. The duo made magic early on and have been inseparable throughout the campaign, skating all but 110 minutes together at 5-on-5 over the course of the campaign. The impact goes beyond what they’ve both managed offensively, however, because while both have had career-best statistical seasons, the secondary benefit is that Philadelphia has stumbled upon a two-way forward duo that is among the league’s best.
For Couturier, the breakout campaign has made for an entrance into the Selke Trophy conversation, and he’s deserving of a place among the finalists when the awards are handed out in June. But Giroux’s defensive impact this season shouldn’t be overlooked just because he's on the wing. Quite frankly, his play at both ends of the ice should put him in the same category as Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar when it comes to Hart Trophy discussion.
Some will bristle at the suggestion, to be sure, but consider that Giroux has a better shots for, Corsi for, scoring chances for and goals for percentage than Kopitar at 5-on-5, and the Flyers captain is starting a slightly higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than the Kings captain. And while there will be those who make the argument that Kopitar is playing far more time shorthanded — and he has skated 174 minutes to Giroux’s 64 — a few key underlying numbers favor Giroux as a penalty killer. Of the 176 players to play at least 50 minutes on the kill, Giroux has allowed the fewest shot attempts against, fourth-fewest shots against and second-fewest scoring chances against per 60 minutes of play, ranking ahead of Kopitar in each category. That said, Kopitar has allowed fewer goals against, however, on ice for 4.1 to Giroux’s 6.6 per 60 minutes. And though Kopitar might get the nod for more defensive impact given he’s a center, it's worth nothing that Giroux has a 58.6 winning percentage on the dot and has taken more than 1,000 faceoffs. Only Ryan O’Reilly and Antoine Vermette have been better this season while taking that many draws.
All of this is to say that Giroux has been arguably the most complete player in the league this season, a beast in all facets of the game. And after a campaign in which it appeared he was stuck on a steady decline, this season seems to be Giroux’s way of showing that he’s back and better than ever.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick.)
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