He’s the Boy on the Bubble.
Wasn’t it only yesterday that Claude Giroux was the best thing to come along since Sidney Crosby?
The native of Hearst, Ont., had a breakout year with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011-12, when he scored 28 goals and added 65 assists in 77 games. He began the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season being named the 19th captain of the Flyers, taking on an office once held by the likes of Bobby Clarke. He then scored at a point-a-game pace, picking up 48 in the full 48 games.
Having helped Canada to a gold medal in the 2008 world junior championship, he was delighted to be asked to play for Canada at last spring’s men’s world championship, and once again scored at a now-familiar point-a-game level.
A lock, surely, for the 2014 Olympic team heading for Sochi, Russia, in February.
But then, it all seemed to go wrong. He injured his finger (or wrist) at, of all things, a charity golf tournament near Ottawa in the summer. He declined an invitation to attend Hockey Canada’s ludicrous ball-hockey camp in August. He came back in the fall … only to go scoreless his first 15 games.
But in recent weeks, things have changed; at times, dramatically. The Flyers fired the head coach the players had tuned out, Peter Laviolette, and brought in Craig Berube. Berube preached a new “system” – hockey talk for a new “face” behind the bench – and, almost instantly, things began to change.
“We’re a skating team,” Berube says. “[We] get in on the fore-check. That’s our identity.”
However you explain it, it’s working. The Flyers have been rising toward playoff possibility. Giroux, who will turn 26 a month before the Olympics, started scoring once again at a point-a-game pace.
Heading into Monday’s match against the Ottawa Senators, he was the Flyers’ leading scorer with 20 points. He was unable to add to that total as the Flyers fell 5-4 to the Senators in a shootout.
Significantly, last week, he played a key role in the Flyers’ impressive 6-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings. Giroux scored, set up a goal and was a force all night. He knew it would be noticed, with Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman in the stands and Detroit coach Mike Babcock looking on.
Yzerman, the Tampa Bay Lightning general manager, and Babcock, the head coach of Team Canada, will be key deciders in who makes the Olympic team.
“I feel a lot better,” Giroux said as his team prepared to meet the Senators. “I feel 100 per cent now.
“It’s all about confidence now. After a couple of games in which you play well, I think your confidence gets up. It’s all about confidence right now.”
It’s also all about numbers when it comes to the neutron microscope that examines the makeup of Team Canada.
Giroux is a natural centre, but Yzerman and Babcock have multiple quality centres to choose from: Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares and, if he continues to recover quickly, Steve Stamkos, who was leading the league in scoring a month ago, when he went down with a broken tibia.
Stamkos could play right wing on Crosby’s line, but Yzerman has expressed some reluctance over taking too many players and assigning them to different positions.
There is also the undeniable fact both Yzerman and Babcock have a preference for the tried and true. Veteran players, Yzerman told Philadelphia reporters when the Flyers were in Detroit, “have more of a body of work.”
That leaves Giroux in the awkward position of being a promising youngster who stumbled early this fall, a captain who is not quite a veteran and a player with limited experience on the international ice surface.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Giroux said Monday in Ottawa. “I’m just trying to focus on the games.”
That is just hockey talk for: “I have to say this, but I think about it constantly.” The fact of the matter is he would love nothing better than for everyone to forget his early stumbles and watch what he believes he can do from here on out – and then hope he doesn’t get eliminated from consideration as not having quite enough experience and being too much centre.
“It’s one of my dreams to [play in the Olympics],” Giroux said. “So I need to focus on how I’ve got to play.
“That’s the only way I can help myself.”
Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey