What's Wrong with the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux?

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What's Wrong with the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The monkey is off his back, but the recent 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers was the Philadelphia Flyers' 16th game, during which time Claude Giroux has just one goal and seven assists. Philly's superstar captain was expected to compete for the Hart Trophy, and his team for the postseason—what went wrong?

According to the analytics, the Flyers haven't been getting Giroux the puck, primarily because they don't often seem to have it in the first place.

In the wake of his goalless drought, we'll break down Giroux's game and analyze both his playmaking and his goal scoring to find out where the flaws have been. That will lead us to one of the key causes of Giroux's slow start: the team's poor possession-based game.

 

What Happened to Giroux's Playmaking?

In a word: nothing.

Expectations may have been raised in the 2011-12 season when Giroux established himself as one of the league's top playmakers, finishing second in assists (65) and third in points (93). That year Giroux recorded 14.4 percent of the team's assists, and this year he is right on the same line with 14.9 percent.

Since earning assists can depend just as much on the shooting of one's linemates and the quality of opposing goaltending as one's own playmaking talents, it's helpful to evaluate players based on the number of setup passes they're making instead.

Even though it's a great idea, setup passes are unfortunately not officially recorded by the NHL, nor unofficially by any other source. That's why an estimate is used that's based on a player's primary assists and the team's shooting percentage when they're on the ice, broken down by manpower situation.

Giroux is generally among the league-leaders by this measurement and remains so today. In 2011-12 Giroux was averaging 4.75 passes per game that resulted in a shot, followed by 4.20 last season. So far this year, it's actually his highest ever, 5.25 passes per game, per Hockey Abstract.

While it's hard to reach rock-solid conclusions based on passes and assists after just a fifth of a season, it nevertheless appears clear that Giroux is still getting the puck onto his linemate's sticks as frequently as ever.

 

What Happened to Giroux's Goal Scoring?

Pick 16 random games from the career of a 25-goal scorer, and while it won't likely add up to a single goal on your first try, it will eventually happen, and sooner than you think.

These slumps are quite common. Adam Gretz of SB Nation did an interesting study of just how frequently top line players go on extended goalless droughts. Even among the game's 40-goal men, all of them have had cold stretches that lasted at least nine or 10 games.

A look at Giroux's own history shows that every year there's always at least one prolonged stretch where the puck just won't go in.

Claude Giroux's Goal-Scoring Slumps
2012-13 Last year he scored in each of the first two games and then recorded just a single goal in the 15 games that followed.
2011-12 Even in his breakout season, he had one goal in 16 games, starting two days before Christmas and through the end of January. Ho ho ho.
2010-11 Most Philly fans remember the 2010-11 playoffs where Giroux earned just a single goal in 11 games.
2009-10 Started March with a goal and then added just one more in the season's remaining 16 games. This was the year where he started the first two months with just single games where he lit the red lamp.
2008-09 Separate 1-in-14 and 1-in-15 stretches throughout 2008-09.

So there's an element of bad luck at play. Take 35 shots, and while you'll usually get four goals, sometimes you get eight, and sometimes you get zero. The only two factors that make this low-lying case interesting is that it happened at the start of the season and that the whole team is struggling.

 

Why Isn't Giroux Shooting?

Of course, saying that there doesn't necessarily need to be something going wrong for a drought like this to occur doesn't mean that there isn't something wrong.

For example, the most alarming thing about Giroux's offensive game is that he isn't taking as many shots as usual. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, Giroux averaged 3.14 and 2.85 shots per game respectively, but so far this year, he's averaging just 2.19, and despite playing over 22 minutes per game, his highest ever.

Why aren't the shots being taken? Are his linemates not getting him the puck? In 2011-12 Giroux played with Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, who averaged 1.61 and 2.74 passes per game. Last year Giroux mostly lined up with Jakub Voracek, but also Hartnell and Matt Read. They averaged 2.35, 1.24 and 1.60 passes per game, respectively.

The lines have been changed up quite a bit this year, but again it's mostly Voracek and Hartnell. Hartnell is yet to register a primary assist on which to base the estimate, while Voracek is averaging just 1.21 passes per game.

It certainly appears that his linemates are having difficulty getting him the puck. And there's a very good reason why— they don't have the puck in the first place.

 

Len Redkoles/Getty Images

What's Ultimately to Blame?

Despite all their spending, the Flyers are a weak defensive team. They spend a lot of time in their own end, chasing the puck around, and not nearly enough time in the offensive zone where Giroux's talents can be put to best use.

They're giving up 34.3 shots per 60 minutes in close-game situations, the fifth-highest total in the NHL, and taking just 27.4, which is 21st in the NHL, per Extra Skater.

What's Giroux's role in all of this? Being one of the Flyers' more complete two-way players, both former coach Peter Laviolette and new coach Craig Berube have been leaning on him to help shut down the opponents. Estimates of the average quality of Giroux's competition places him in the top three among the team's forwards. It's hard to generate offense when you're focused on shutting down the top lines.

Giroux is actually playing reasonably well in this regard. He may have started the season minus-nine, but plus/minus is somewhat of a flawed statistic. Not only is he facing top opponents, but Philly goalies also have a save percentage of just .875 when he's on the ice.

The key alternative statistic to consider is the team's attempted shot differential when Giroux is on the ice, which is essentially even. The Flyers may indeed be getting dominated on the shot clock this year, but not when their captain's on the ice.

 

Closing Thoughts

Hockey can be a frustrating game when the bounces aren't going one's way. There doesn't seem to be anything fundamentally flawed about Giroux's game. His playmaking has been excellent, and his defensive play has been steady, especially relative to the rest of the team.

What's happening to Giroux is most likely the type of slump that happens to virtually everybody at least once a season, but simply magnified because it started from game one.

That being said, his scoring totals are unlikely to rival his incredible 2011-12 totals while the team continues to struggle in the puck-possession battles. As long as the Flyers are playing without the puck and using Giroux in defensive-focused situations with linemates who are unable to set him up, points will continue to be a little more difficult to come by.

 

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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