Michael Pina: Welcome Claude Giroux into your home

Photo courtesy Ladyneat, http://www.flickr.com/photos/neat1325/

Now let me start by admitting I’m an NBA guy. Basketball is the sun, and I’m a rocky mass orbiting it at all times. I absorb everything meaningful about the league that’s written and said aloud. I come home from work and watch at least two games every night, and if NBATV chooses to re-run the 2002 dunk contest at 2 PM on a random Wednesday, my regularly scheduled afternoon falls to pieces.

So why all of a sudden write a piece about hockey? While basketball is my calling, I’ve been an unabashed bandwagon fan of the Boston Bruins since Pat Burns stalked the bench and Joe Thornton was an 18-year-old phenom capable of filling a floundering franchise with some semblance of hope.

In that time, the team I’ve most often caught facing off against my own is the Flyers. The player who—by far—has scared me the most in that time? Claude Giroux.

Giroux is a relatively hidden gem who some might say sits on the same level of excellence as Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. But his skills have yet to transcend “household name” popularity. Why is this? Is he talented enough to cross that line?

Three years ago, Giroux was knee deep in my nightmares as the Flyers pulled a reverse 2004 ALCS on Boston, coming back from an 0-3 deficit in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to rip the city’s heart out in seven. Giroux headed into that series a cold-blooded murderer, notching six points in a five-game first round romp over the New Jersey Devils in the round before. He’d gotten his feet wet with five points in a six-game first round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous year, but his annihilation of the Devils—including two goals in the series clincher—felt more significant.

In those first three games against Boston, Giroux acted the part of an inexperienced 22-year-old seeing major ice time in a big series, accumulating only one assist on eight goal-less shots. After that? Well, Tuukka Rask still sobs when it’s brought up in conversation.

With his Flyers backed into a corner, one game away from a sweep, Giroux was maniacal, and his team picked things up from there. In Game 7, he was the spark that turned everything around, assisting James van Riemsdyk for Philly’s first goal of the contest.

Giroux is beloved and respected by all his teammates and coaches, Philadelphia’s upper management and staff. He’s not only the captain, but a star, a serious franchise representative.

A few days ago I asked a friend of mine who used to play professional hockey what makes Giroux such a great player. He praised his patience, unteachable hockey sense, and a consummate skill. On the ice Giroux is a bull on his skates, nearly impossible to knock off a path. His ability to make those around him better (a quality in all sports that separtes the good from the great) is exceptional.

According to Hockey-Reference.com, he was second in points per game and third in goals created per game last season. (His 0.84 assists per game led the league.) Apart from lifting a Stanley Cup (he had four points in the two games Philly won in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals), he’s won at every level, including juniors and the Olympics.

During last year’s NHL playoffs, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar recorded a league high 20 points in 20 games. Eight goals and 12 assists. In exactly half as many games, Giroux scored as many goals and finished with three fewer points. This, according to my hockey-lifer friend, is absolutely incredible.

Every year, in every sport, there’s a small group of “best” players. These  players aren’t necessarily operating at the highest possible level, but their skill sets are better than everyone else’s at that time. I asked my friend how good Giroux was compared to the game’s all-time greats and he gushed: everything Giroux does at an elite level now was done before by current members of hockey’s Hall of Fame.

So why doesn’t he get the attention he deserves? Why isn’t he recognized and treated like Ovechkin or Crosby? Maybe this is the year that happens, because he’s good enough to deserve it.

Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network and ScoreBig.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelVPina.