Four years ago, after a young, promising center doubled his career point total in his third season, the Flyers moved to make that player into team captain. In the process they replaced a veteran defenseman who was let go following a season of injury problems.
Don’t expect them to make the same mistake again.
After Mike Richards’ captaincy was crushed by a combination of his youth, an oppressive media and hands-on management (I still believe his on-ice captain-credentials to be top-notch), the Flyers won’t replace 24-year-old Claude Giroux’s “A” with a “C” quite yet. But it won’t take too long.
Unquestionably, Claude Giroux is this team’s leader on the ice. He is their Bobby Clarke: a feisty, long-haired, undeniably talented player who will do absolutely anything to win. Whether it be scoring a goal in the shootout (the only Flyer to do so this year), diving to knock a puck off an opponent’s stick or trying to inspire his team with a fight in a dreary match against the Islanders, Giroux shows no fear in any situation.
And his teammates follow his lead. In the two games against Boston with Giroux in the lineup, the Flyers have outscored the Bruins seven goals to six. In the single game without Giroux, the Flyers were outscored six goals to none, as we all remember.
However, there is a reason that I used the phrase “the team’s leader on the ice.” The handling of the media and locker room are responsibilities that take a certain amount of time to master. While Giroux is being looked at more and more by the Philadelphia media as the Flyers' de facto leader, he still doesn’t have the extra burdens of the captaincy on his shoulders. The difference between being a “leader” and a CAPTAIN may only be in the wording, but it means everything to the media.
When will Claude Giroux be ready for the captaincy?
A leader steps up for the team when he can. A captain has to step up for the team at all times. A leader can be part of a group of leaders. A captain has the support of leaders, but is distinct from them all. A leader can recite the same boring refrain of stock answers when questioned about the team’s performance. A captain will be badgered until he provides specifics. A leader needs no previous experience, he just needs to lead. A captain needs to have the volume of experience to relate to all the players on his team.
And unlike Danny Briere, Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell (all players who have worn an “A” or “C” on their chest this season), Giroux hasn’t experienced the true ups and downs the NHL can bring.
Getting swept by Boston certainly taught him something. But he has yet to play for a team that has missed the playoffs. His worst injury resulted in a mere five-game absence. And he’s never finished a season averaging less than a point every other game.
The overarching theme here is that Giroux has never hit rock bottom. As an NHLer, he has always been a talented player on a winning team who has had relatively little trouble scoring or staying healthy. Even more, he has had the full support of a very generous management team, more than guys like Hartnell and Timonen had in Nashville or Pronger had in St. Louis, or Briere had in Phoenix.
If the Flyers choose to concede the loss of Pronger for the season and make Claude Giroux their captain in his absence, they would be making a mistake. Giroux may be their leader in the trenches, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready for the responsibility of running the team outside of them.
And he won’t be next year, especially if Pronger is still around (which, at this point, is expected). However, two years down the line, when Giroux will be starting his fifth full season while Pronger will no longer be the terror he once was at 39, should be prime time for Giroux to step in as the captain. In the meantime, he should soak in all this free leadership practice that Chris Pronger’s absence has created. In the hockey-mad city of Philadelphia, he’s gonna need it.