The NHL lockout drags along, as temporary optimism is constantly replaced by the recurring reality of the philosophical differences between the NHL and NHLPA.
The labor dispute has a huge effect on the Philadelphia Flyers, who stood to be one of the Eastern Conference's Stanley Cup contenders in 2012-13 behind their rising superstar Claude Giroux.
After bursting onto the scene in 2011-12, Giroux seemed poised to continue his rise to stardom this season while serving as the top centerman on one of the league's most potent offenses. Alas, the arguments over the structure of the new collective bargaining agreement have put Giroux's development in the NHL on hold.
Here are five reasons Giroux has a lot to lose if this lockout takes away the season in its entirety.
Line chemistry became a huge part of Claude Giroux's game in 2011-12, when he spent most of the season being flanked by Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr.
Giroux's setup abilities did not go to waste with these linemates, as Jagr returned to the NHL and put up a pleasantly-surprising 19 goals while Hartnell shattered his previous career high by netting 37 tallies.
Jagr departed for Dallas in the offseason, leaving the top right wing position open to be filled by a player like Jakub Voracek. Voracek is a fine playmaker and puckhandler in his own right, but he and Giroux need time on the ice together to learn to complement one another.
Since neither is a pure shooter, it will take some live-game action for the pair to learn the nuances in each other's game.
Likewise, the impressive chemistry between Hartnell and Giroux cannot be allowed to die down. A whole year apart can have a huge effect on the timing and instincts of any two players, and if the Flyers lose that top-line magic, they will see their superstar begin to slump when the team finally does return to NHL action.
Few hockey players would tell you that league-wide popularity is important to them, least of all a guy like Claude Giroux. But the fact remains that Philadelphia is one of the biggest hockey hotbeds in the United States and the team has been without the spotlight that comes with housing one of the NHL's true superstars since Eric Lindros left town.
A year (or more) without NHL hockey is time during which Giroux's impact on the NHL softens. His highlight-reel scoring and bitter rivalry with Sidney Crosby have him poised to become one of the most talked-about players in hockey. Giroux even graces the cover of EA Sports' NHL 13, an indicator of his role in promoting the sport.
Still, while any good hockey fan is more than familiar with Giroux's name, more casual fans are still getting to know him. He is not yet in the same tier as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin or the Sedin twins.
2012-13 would have been a big year for Giroux to make his mark on the national sports culture, but a long lockout will set that process back another year and leave room for hockey to become less relevant in the minds of sports fans.
In the last three seasons, Giroux’s point production has risen steadily, from 47 in 2009-10 to 76 the following year and 93 (in 77 games) in 2011-12. Barring a significant injury, Giroux was poised to easily break 100 points in 2012-13.
For a player with Giroux’s offensive expectations, breaking the 100-point barrier is a significant accomplishment and a sign of a very high offensive ceiling. Players who consistently exceed 100 points are in an elite offensive category, one that no Flyer has touched since before the 2004-05 lockout.
Even if the season is shortened, as opposed to canceled, that triple-digit plateau will quickly become unattainable, as will the psychological boost that comes with it.
Once Giroux proves he can be a 100-point player, it becomes nearly impossible for opposing fans to argue that Giroux is not among the top tier of players in the NHL.
Until then, the statistics keep Giroux in a category just below rivals like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Giroux’s fantastic 2011-12 season was one that Flyers fans talked about proudly for almost the entire year.
He took over the top offensive role with enthusiasm, putting up big points and turning linemate Scott Hartnell into a scoring machine. He became a leader in the absence of Chris Pronger and easily established himself as the city’s next big hockey superstar.
But the way it all ended has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Flyers fans.
In an emotional sequence in Game 4 against the New Jersey Devils, Giroux found himself yelling at a referee at one end of the ice, then taking a shot at Dainius Zubrus’ head at the other. The act earned him a suspension for Game 5, which would turn out to be an elimination game, and resulted in an embarrassing, immature ending to an otherwise stunning year for Giroux.
Giroux has had to wait the entire offseason to redeem himself for the senseless hit, and thanks to an equally-senseless labor dispute, he continues to wait.
What drives attention in sports more than rivalry?
Claude Giroux is quickly turning into the anti-Crosby, the player who goes toe-to-toe with the game's best player. After a physical first-round playoff series that saw plenty of friction on and off the ice, Giroux and Crosby have had a small but notable war of words in the media this offseason (via Yahoo! Sports).
When healthy, Crosby is the best in the game. When playing, Giroux is approaching Crosby’s level of ability. And given that these stars play on opposite ends of one of hockey’s top rivalries, the recipe for a well-documented, heartfelt mano-a-mano is attracting some major attention across the NHL.
That rivalry is good for hockey, and good for both Giroux and Crosby.
Nothing keeps a player sharp like trying to prove he is better than the guy on the other team. At the moment, Crosby has the experience, the awards, and the Stanley Cup championship. Giroux, only a year into his new role as the face of the franchise, has a victory in the first head-to-head playoff matchup since Mike Richards and Jeff Carter left Philadelphia. He also owns Crosby’s team in Pittsburgh’s own building.
As long as the lockout lasts, this rivalry cannot grow much beyond the petty comments made in the media. Neither player wants the contention determined by sound bites, and both want to settle the score on the ice.
For the sake of hockey, let’s hope they get their chance.