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"Who's that" - Claude Giroux Emerging Star

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Paul Holmgren allowed himself a little laugh when telling the story.

In what turned out to be a tumultuous off-season last summer, the Philadelphia Flyers GM traded stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

But he wasn’t done.

Now he was trying to recruit star forward Jaromir Jagr, who, in making a return to the NHL after three years in the Kontinental Hockey League, was trying to decide between the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jagr had questions about the Flyers, where they were going and about Holmgren’s philosophy on team building.

“He asked me why I traded those two guys (Richards and Carter). I just said we needed to get bigger in certain areas and we got some young guys we think are emerging, Claude Giroux being one.”

There was a silence on the line.

Giroux, the 24-year-old who has quickly emerged as one of the NHL’s top forwards after just more than two seasons, was a big reason why Holmgren felt he could move Carter and Richards, fill some other holes and get younger and bigger with the trades.

Giroux’ point totals had grown from 27 in 42 games three years ago to 47 in 82 games two years ago to 76 in 82 games last year.

But Jagr was, like, who?

“We felt that Claude was an emerging player not just from last year, but the year before. We went to the final the year before and he was a dynamic player. We certainly expected some of that to continue. When I talked to Jaromir, he didn’t even know who Claude was. He had been out of the league for three years, so he didn’t really know who he was.”

That brought to mind the first night of the 2006 draft in Vancouver when Flyers executive Bob Clarke got up to the podium to announce the Flyers’ first pick (22nd overall) and drew a blank, finally coming up with Giroux’ name.

It’s probably pretty safe to say when Giroux returns to Ottawa as an NHL all-star (his family moved to Orleans in 2002 from his native Hearst, Ont.) nobody will be asking “Who’s that?”

Giroux, who wound up playing on a line with Jagr, has been battling for the NHL scoring lead and is heading to his second straight all-star game.

It’s been a quick climb in just over three seasons for Giroux. Now he’s the front-line centre for a Stanley Cup contender and playing with one of the legends of the game in Jagr.

“At training camp, I wasn’t sure if I could go talk to him or just let it be,” said Giroux. “I was pretty nervous, actually, so I finally decided to go talk to him and I didn’t really know what to say. That was my first time meeting him. It was a pretty exciting moment.”

After some experimentation, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette put Giroux with Jagr and the two have hit it off.

“I don’t think it was set in stone when Jaromir signed here (that he would play with Giroux) and this would be a match made in heaven,” said Laviolette. “I don’t think you know that until players actually get together, they spend time together and they develop chemistry or they don’t develop chemistry and it seemed almost from Day 1 on ice that there was a chemistry.

“Everybody thinks about the game a certain way. Then there are a few people, a few select people, who think about the game in a different way and how it should be played and where to go and the space that is available and where to be, how to support, how to give somebody space.

“They just think a little bit differently and I truly think that Claude and Jaromir think on the same level. They think the game the same way.”

That’s a pretty nice compliment for Giroux, to be compared to one of the greatest offensive players that’s played in the NHL (with 1,633 career points, Jagr is just eight behind Joe Sakic for eighth on the all-time list).

“He’s a talented player and I think the way he plays, his mentality of playing offence, it’s different than the other players,” Giroux said of Jagr. “It’s obviously different and we try to make sure we’re on the same page.”

It sounds like playing with Jagr has accelerated Giroux’ development.

“Every time we play a new team, he kind of switches his game and that’s why he performs pretty much every night,” said Giroux, “because he can change his game from one team to another. As a young player coming in, it’s pretty impressive.

“He works a lot with me and I think I’m pretty lucky to have him beside me and kind of show me the way. Obviously, he has had a pretty good career, so he knows how to get it done.”

Giroux’ game is based on finesse. He doesn’t have that big a frame, but he’s a strong skater and tougher to knock off the puck than he looks. He’s wily at exploiting small bits of space and his vision allows him to draw guys to him and find Jagr and winger Scott Hartnell.

It’s been a two-way street as far as the admiration goes between Giroux and Jagr.

Jagr earlier this season compared Giroux to a former teammate in Pittsburgh with the Penguins.

“Mario Lemieux,” Jagr told NHL.com. “A little Mario Lemieux, a little smaller, but he can see it. You have to be watching all the time because you never know when the puck is coming.”

“I think (Jagr’s) happy to be playing with him,” said Holmgren. “I think he knows who Claude Giroux is now.”

So does everybody else, if they didn’t already.

From the Ottawa Sun

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