By Brian Bohl
PHILADELPHIA- Claude Giroux skated down the ice and was in perfect position near the right circle to slam linemate Boyd Kane's feed past the glove of the opposing goalie.
The goal capped a three-point night for Giroux, who could be the Flyers' best prospect. Next month will mark his 21th birthday, though the right winger could be playing in the Wachovia Center with the big club shortly.
But even more impressive for Giroux was his second assist when the teenager sent a no-look pass to Kane in the slot, helping the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms post a 6-3 win over the Hartford Wolfpack (Rangers affiliate) Friday night.
Just three months ago, Giroux struggled to make those crisp passes or display the scoring touch that enticed the Flyers to draft him with the 22nd overall pick in 2006. The Hearst, Ontario native didn't impress coach John Stevens and his staff in training camp when given the chance to make the season-opening roster.
After playing in two NHL games before a brief five game stint with the Phantoms last season, the Flyers decided to literally send Giroux across the parking lot.
The Wachovia Spectrum shares a parking spot with the Flyers home arena, with the 41-year-old arena serving as the Phantoms home. The building, set to be demolished after this season, once housed the Flyers and NBA's 76ers. Now it is home for budding stars such as Giroux, who is using the demotion as motivation.
Giroux registered 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points through 26 games in his first full professional season. Playing wing on a line centered by Phantoms captain Jared Ross and flanked by Kane, the 5-11,180-pound forward said he is finding a comfort level.
"With the Flyers, I didn't play like I wanted to," Giroux said. "I didn't work hard. Obviously, I didn't deserve to make the team but I learned from that and I'm just trying to work hard and maybe have a chance soon."
John Paddock went 36-23-6 as the coach for the Ottawa Senators last season before going back to his roots in the AHL. The 54-year-old took over the Phantoms head coaching duties this season and said Giroux has improved nearly every facet of his game since the first game.
Paddock, who has led three different franchises to Calder Cup championships, coached future NHL star Jason Spezza at the start of his minor league career and is hoping Giroux can translate his skills to the next level.
"He's a real intelligent player," Paddock said. "He's very skilled and competes like crazy. He just needs to get used to the pro game. To be in the NHL, there's an experienced factor and [players] are a little bit stronger. But he's a really good player."
Giroux scored 125 goals in 187 games in juniors, registering 321points for the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques. Yet he struggled in October, scoring two goals in eight games with just one multi-point game and a minus-five rating.
Since then, Giroux has racked up seven multi-point games, including a career-best three-point effort against the Wolfpack last week.
"The first five games, he wasn't a really good player for us for what we expected," Paddock said. "Expectations are high for him. He puts pressure on himself, so he had to adjust to understand that our league is a very hard league to play in. But he's such a character guy that when he realized that, he picked up his game up and he's been one of the better players in the league."
Giroux's improved play could mean another stroll across the street to help the Flyers make a potential playoff run. Philadelphia entered Tuesday sixth in the Eastern Conference. Joining a big-city team for a stretch run would complete the hockey journey for a player born in a town with a population of less than 6,000, where Giroux said he started playing when he was four or five years old.
"I'm trying to control the things I can control and if they think I'm ready to make the step, I'll make the step," Giroux said. "If not, I'll play the whole year down here. It's all about them. If it was [up to] me, I'd love to be there right now. But if they think I'm not ready, then I respect their decision."
"Traditionally, we have targeted bigger, more physical players," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said to the team's website in 2007. "But Claude was a player high on our list. We view him as an excellent blend of skill and smarts, and a player with a very competitive attitude and a definite desire to win.
"Basically, he's the perfect player model for the new NHL."