Some of the NHL’s biggest stories this season have unfortunately been related to head injuries of the game’s most intriguing superstars.
The major hockey storyline going into 2011-12 was the health of the game’s most important player, Sidney Crosby.
In Crosby’s absence, Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux found himself with an opportunity to become of the faces of the NHL. He was leading the league in points on December 10th, when he took a knee to the head as teammate Wayne Simmonds attempted to avoid him.
Giroux was eventually diagnosed with a concussion, and given Crosby’s ongoing struggle to bounce back from his head injury, concerns have arisen that Giroux’s promising career could be derailed before it truly gets started.
While there is certainly cause for alarm, it is too early to go into full panic mode over Giroux’s career. Here are seven reasons to believe that Giroux will be back atop the NHL sooner rather than later.
While Giroux’s head may not be 100 percent at the moment, he is still incredibly young by superstar standards.
The fact that Giroux is yet to turn 24 indicates that his understanding of the game, his ability to exploit defenses and his physical conditioning are only going to improve.
The Flyers can afford Giroux the time he needs to recover, because for the franchise, a young player with Giroux’s upside is a long-term investment.
Every other part of his body is completely healthy, so as long as Giroux and the team doctors are smart about treating his concussion, he is in no real danger of breaking down prematurely.
Giroux’s talent derives from the type of game he plays. His vision of the ice is the biggest reason for his success.
In overtime against Buffalo three nights before his injury, Giroux read a pass from one point to the other and stepped up to intercept the puck. He had a clean breakaway on Ryan Miller and ended the game when he beat the Sabres netminder five-hole.
Because so much of Giroux’s success derives from his understanding of the game, as long as his concussion issues don’t become chronic, he will remain a mentally tough competitor. He will continue to make linemates better and be a force in the offensive and defensive zones.
Flyers fans have a tendency to want to compare their core players to the league’s superstars, and at times, this can be a bit of an exaggeration.
During Mike Richards’ tenure in Philly, the fans constantly compared him to Crosby, having trouble accepting the fact that, on a pure talent level, it was comparing apples and oranges.
However, when Flyers fans (and Max Talbot) compare Giroux to Crosby now, there is no doubt that the Flyers finally have their answer to Pittsburgh’s messiah.
Giroux sat atop the league’s scoring race at the time of his injury, and did so on a team that had lost its team captain and top goal scorer in the offseason. In 28 games, Giroux had 39 points, 16 goals, five power-play goals and five game-winners.
With his team leading the Eastern Conference at the time of his injury and ready to be featured on the big stage at the Winter Classic, Giroux has all the tools and attention to become a new face of the NHL.
Part of Giroux’s appeal is that he plays an aggressive game, particularly for a player that doesn’t break 175 pounds on the scale.
But, while Giroux is willing to get his hands dirty, he is not a reckless player. He will hit opportunistically and find himself in scrums, but he does not make himself vulnerable.
The Flyers center keeps his head up whenever he has the puck and has quick reflexes around opponents, a talent put on display when Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin went for a cheap shot.
It is safe to say that, when Giroux is healthy again, he will be able to continue to play his game without worrying about physical ramifications or the temptation to adjust to a less aggressive style of play.
When Sidney Crosby temporarily returned from his head injury, he opened his season with a four-point night and amassed 12 points in eight games, despite having missed nearly 11 months of on-ice action.
Using Crosby’s scoring success as a template, there is no reason to believe that Giroux can’t come back with the same drive, especially if his recovery time is much shorter than Crosby’s.
In their history, the Flyers have seen their fair share of talent go to waste because of chronic concussions. It is important to remember that one concussion, diagnosed and treated properly, is significantly different than recurring issues.
Despite all their success this season, the Flyers have made a statement in the last few months that they are no longer a team looking to win today at the expense of tomorrow. By giving up Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for players like Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and a high draft pick, Paul Holmgren established that he wanted a team that would be competitive for years to come.
This new mentality is foreign to a fanbase as passionate as Philly’s, but it is a major reason why Giroux will not be rushed back from his injury. The Flyers might have a chance to win this year, but the team—and the offense in particular—is shaping up to be a force for years to come.
As a result, Holmgren knows he cannot afford to put Giroux at risk. Unlike the way the team handled Eric Lindros during his career, the Flyers will be very cautious with Giroux.
During the offseason, hockey’s head disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan, made it a point to enforce the rules of the game in such a way that preventing head injuries became a priority.
Players are no longer allowed to target an opponent’s head when delivering a hit, and boarding penalties are more strictly dealt with. Both of these hits can result in suspension.
Despite the rash of high-profile concussion issues this year, Shanahan’s approach seems to be working. Giroux’s injury was a freak accident caused by a teammate; Crosby re-injured himself in a collision with teammate Chris Kunitz, and the league’s former leading goal scorer Milan Michalek followed suit by sustaining a concussion after crashing into a teammate as well.
Chris Pronger’s post-concussion syndrome is speculated to be the result of the eye injury he sustained when Mikhail Grabovski followed through on a shot.
None of these high-profile injuries are the results of opponents targeting the head with a body check.
In the more violent, reckless NHL of years past, Giroux may be vulnerable to having his bell rung every time he steps onto the ice. But in today’s game, it seems less and less likely that concussions will result from a legal hockey play and more likely to result from an unpreventable accident.