Steven Stamkos keeps skating and hopes he’ll be ready to play in the Sochi Olympics.
But if the Tampa Bay Lightning star isn’t healthy enough, Canada’s Steve Yzerman has to make a phone call. He could call his own forgotten captain, Marty St. Louis, or Pittsburgh Penguins right-winger James Neal.
Or he could dial up Claude Giroux, who hasn’t let the disappointment of being left off the Olympic team slow him down. After a goal and two assists Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Philadelphia Flyers captain has 16 goals and 27 assists in his past 39 games following a rough start and could be the perfect replacement for Stamkos.
“They’re both right-handed players, they’re both great skaters, they see the ice well,” said Flyers forward Adam Hall, who was also a teammate of Stamkos in Tampa Bay. “I think they both can make those big-time plays, especially at key points of games. They’re both incredible players.”
For good reason, all eyes are on Stamkos as he continues to progress from a broken tibia suffered in November. As Ken Holland of Hockey Canada’s management team pointed out, Stamkos is a “difference-maker.”
“He hasn’t played hockey since early November,” Holland said after his Detroit Red Wings skated at Wells Fargo Center Tuesday, about the same time Stamkos was on the ice at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. “But he’s a star player and even if they’re not a hundred per cent, sometimes 80, 90 per cent of where they’re at in relation to other people is still pretty good.”
But is Stamkos at 80 per cent better than a healthy Giroux on top of his game? That’s an impossible question to answer, but one that might have to be guessed at before NHL players board planes bound for Sochi on Feb. 9.
Stamkos took off from his skating regimen Monday because of soreness, but after getting back on the ice he voiced some optimism that he’s on track to make it back before the Olympic break. The Lightning play five more games beginning Thursday at Ottawa, and Stamkos made it clear he’d like to get into at least one before Sochi.
That may be the only way to truly tell if the 23-year-old is ready.
“Obviously there’s a difference between practising every day (and game action). Eventually you’ve got to get to the point where someone says you’re ready to play,” Holland said. “Hopefully we get good news that he’s going to play some games before the Olympics and he’s going over with us.”
If Stamkos is good to go, he’s expected to play right wing for Canada, despite being a centre in the NHL. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see the two-time Maurce Richard Trophy-winner alongside captain Sidney Crosby, too, because a player with 222 career goals and another with 474 assists doesn’t seem like a half-bad mix on the top line.
Giroux, also a natural centre with the flexibility to move to the right side, isn’t as much of a pure goal-scorer as Stamkos — 107 goals and 234 assists in 387 career games — but he’s a playmaker.
“He’s one of the best passers in the league,” said Philadelphia linemate Scott Hartnell, the beneficiary of two Giroux assists Tuesday night. “He’s pretty easy to play with. Get him the puck, you’re going to get it back.”
Get Stamkos the puck, and there’s a good chance it ends up in the net. That’s something Canada would certainly be lacking if he can’t make it to Sochi.
Of course in players like Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks and Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings, Canada has some talent in the goal-scoring department. There was obviously enough of it down the right side in the eyes of management to keep Giroux and St. Louis off the team.
But with the status of Stamkos unclear and other injuries possible, a few players were always going to be on the edge of receiving a last-minute invite. With some strong play in a 5-0 victory over Canada coach Mike Babcock’s Red Wings, Giroux made a case for why it could be him.
“He’s a great player, obviously one of the best,” linemate Jakub Voracek said. “He was making things happen out there.”
Giroux brushed off positive talk about his offensive game, which has been steady since going the first 15 games of the season without a goal. He wasn’t going to boast about a three-point night.
“That’s only one game,” the Hearst, Ont., native said. “We need a lot more improvement — be smarter defensively, and that’s when our chances are going to come.”
Hartnell called Giroux the Flyers’ biggest contributor offensively and defensively, adding that he knows when the captain is on when he’s snapping back faceoffs with some authority.
“When he goes,” Hartnell said, “we go as a team.”
If Giroux goes to Sochi, he likely won’t be taking many faceoffs for the centre-rich Canadians. That’s what Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron are for.
But the 26-year-old has an ability to take over games, like Stamkos.
“When players like that are on their game, it really is something special to watch,” Hall said. “For them to be able to go out there and do what they do and for you to be a part of it, it’s really a lot of fun.”
But this season hasn’t been all fun for Giroux after a forgettable start that followed off-season surgery to repair torn tendons in his hand. Not making the Olympic team added another blow.
All along, Hall and his teammates watched Giroux get through it and thrive.
“You see no matter what the situation, he always finds a way to come out on top, he finds a way to battle through it,” Hall said. “He’s not just a prima donna who’s trying to get points.
“A lot of people don’t notice the work that he puts in: When he goes in and battles on one-on-ones and how strong he is on faceoffs. He’s not a perimeter player. To see that and to see him kind of lead by example is, I think, something that most of us try and follow.”