Thursday, August 21, 2014

Giroux dodged a bullet with successful guarantee

We don't know what motivated Claude Giroux to draw attention to himself and make a bold prediction.

Maybe he didn't want to do it. Maybe he felt he had to. Perhaps it was a selfless act by a captain learning on the fly, to draw attention away from the club's performance. Or it might have been a rash, spur-of-the-moment dictum by an athlete playing young and in the peak of confidence.

Whatever way you look at it, it was done. On October 22, Giroux went in front of the cameras and boldly declared the Philadelphia Flyers were going to make the playoffs. This was at a time when the team he led was mired in a franchise-worst 1-7-0 slump to start the season and managed to re-write its own record books with regard to offensive futility.

"We'll take it here game-by-game and we will make the playoffs," the leader of the Ginger brigade proclaimed. "When you have the record we have right now, you're a little frustrated and you try to figure out what's going on but everybody came to the rink and we know there's a lot of hockey left to play here. We're not far at all. How many points are we off, six? To think that with the start we had, we're that close. We've never thought that we're not going to make the playoffs."
 
At just 25 years of age, it didn't appear Giroux was too concerned about right or wrong, or that the last top player in Philadelphia to wear the "C" was effectively neutered by his own guarantee of victory. Giroux ended up being right, because he had the luxury of staking his claim with 74 games remaining in the season.

But what if he was wrong? Giroux fashioned a rope far thicker and far tighter than Eric Lindros ever did, when he tried to make like his hero Mark Messier and came up well short.

Following a deflating, momentum-shifting 2-1 double-overtime home loss to the Florida Panthers in Game 5 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Semifinals at the Spectrum, Lindros went ahead and guaranteed his team would be back home for a deciding Game 7.

"We're coming back here and we're going to win," the fragile behemoth said. Anyone who recalled the 10 seconds in front of the camera then, couldn't help but notice it wasn't a confident gesture. Lindros was in the process of vigorously removing his equipment, and tossed off the line as if it were perfunctory and a fait accompli. Unlike Messier, there was no precedent, no five Stanley Cup rings and Conn Smythe or Hart Trophy to back up the visibly-perturbed captain's claim.

Two nights later in Miami, Lindros was shut out completely and the Flyers dropped a 4-1 decision to the upstart Panthers, who made it all the way to the Cup Finals. It was John LeClair, his Legion of Doom linemate, which held up a defiant index finger upon scoring his goal with 4:17 left in regulation, while Lindros was largely silent.

The only fallout from that failed guarantee -- other than a few snickers that Lindros had a long way to go before achieving the gravitas of Messier -- was that the Flyers' season was over, and the offseason would be used to fine-tune the top club in the East. Last October Giroux not only put himself into the gallows, but the rest of his teammates as well, who can only do what they're capable but require his game-to-game presence for that special guidance and spark.

It is a tricky method of doing business, having your best player, your most skilled skater, also serving as the team leader both on and off the ice. The Flyers have indulged in quick leadership changes for the sake of youth several times in their history, first with the dumping of Dave Poulin for Ron Sutter in December of 1989, then investing in Lindros as he headed into his third NHL campaign in 1994, and most controversially, giving Mike Richards the "C" prior to his fourth season in 2008.

With Lindros and Giroux, the main trouble with tying your team's performance to its leader's scoring ledger is, as the captain goes, so did the rest of the team. Giroux stumbled horrendously through the first goal-less 15 games, then needed another 15 -- during which he scored just five times and added eight assists -- to get the motor running. By the time he reeled off nine straight games with at least one point around Christmas, the Flyers only began their climb out of the dungeon and into playoff contention in earnest.

Remove that outburst which set Giroux on a course for Hart Trophy consideration and nomination, and the bottom falls out of the season very quickly. The top line remains a mess with Giroux AWOL and Scott Hartnell faltering, Tye McGinn looks more lost in the NHL and Michael Raffl never finds his niche when skating alongside the captain. Wayne Simmonds, who I had tabbed for the club's true MVP, remains their best player but can't be relied on to score, fight and check the rest of his team into relevance. Steve Mason can't hold back the deluge every game with a defense that most likely won't have Andrew MacDonald patrolling it long-term. 

His goal and assist at home against Montreal provided the win over the Habs in a 2-1 final; without his four points in the third period against Columbus, there's no 5-4 comeback victory and the home-and-home set is completely lost; his assists on the first and third goals in Edmonton disappear, Raffl's shootout heroics never occur.

Even before that burst, we're not even talking about a 6-0-1 stretch in early November where the Orange and Black returned to respectability, and whatever push there is, dies without Giroux's steady contributions. There's also bound to be increased discussion about how the brawl with the Capitals was a total anachronistic failure.

If Paul Holmgren talked to Ed Snider about a leadership change in the front office as far back as January, it's not too difficult to envision that Holmgren would have tendered his resignation -- perhaps as early as that initial conversation and maybe as late as the Olympic break -- as the Flyers continued to stew in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference cellars. Whether Snider accepted or told Homer to wait out the season as a lame duck, as Bob Clarke apparently was at the start of the 2006-07 season, is up for further speculation. Neither path would have been a very attractive option, but a quicker change would have given Ron Hextall at least three more months headway to implement his vision for this year.

With an insurmountable hill to climb, Craig Berube is not given the green light to guide the team beyond the end of the regular season. His role, more of a caretaker while the organization draws up a list of potential long-term candidates, ends with Game 82. Despite rumors, Terry Murray does not become a candidate to take over until season's end, though his desire to preside over a rebuilding team in the NHL at age 63 is a serious question mark.

John Tortorella could have relocated back across the continent, installed as a "motivational" head coach after two straight disappointing seasons without a playoff berth.

Giroux also clearly never embraces the chance to further test his bravado with the promise of extending the Flyers' first-round series against the Rangers: "We’re going to tie up this series and go back to New York. You’ve got to stay confident," he said after a Game 3 home loss whose promise was fulfilled by a narrow 2-1 decision in Game 4.

Heading into his third season and second full-strength schedule as Flyers captain, Giroux will do well to tread lightly, to make sure his stellar play and his emerging leadership stay one step ahead of his brain and mouth. Proclamations, promises and guarantees are good in short supply. Messier knew it, and Lindros apparently learned it after being burned. How Giroux deals with essentially going 2-for-2 on his own back will go a long way towards determining the way his locker room is run.

With "Lindros Syndrome" imprinted on the minds of Flyer fans who recall the now distant past, Hextall would be wise to sign or trade for mid-level players who can adequately make a difference if Giroux should be hurt or endure another inexplicable prolonged slump. The club will not likely survive another downturn as occurred through the first quarter of last season, whether Giroux is the primary mover or not.

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