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Claude Giroux’s fun new world with the Florida Panthers

Claude Giroux was asked whether playing for the Florida Panthers is as fun as it looks.

“Well, we’re winning,” he said. “So, yeah.”

Giroux, 34, had a classic NHL trade deadline glow-up, going from the draft lottery-bound Philadelphia Flyers to the Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the regular season’s best record. He went from near the basement to the penthouse, from moroseness to merriment.

He also went from a team that was 31st in goals per game to a team that had the best scoring average (4.11) for any team since the 1995-96 season. Watching a Panthers game can be equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, as they push the pace and constantly create offensively.

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“You kinda learn how to manage your ice time. When to go and when to rest,” Giroux told ESPN recently. “It definitely took me a couple of games. It’s a high pace. It’s about supporting each other, knowing where your teammates are. When you get used to it, your job becomes a little easier. But it was definitely an adjustment.”

There have been other adjustments for Giroux since joining the Panthers, having now played 18 regular-season games and three playoff games with them. Like adjusting to a new climate, shipping down to Sunrise, Florida, when Philadelphia was still in a wintery chill.

“It’s nice and hot on the beach, so that’s different,” he said, admitting that he still has shopping to do for a South Florida wardrobe.

But perhaps the biggest adjustment for Giroux: Going from being the face of his franchise to just one of many for the Panthers.

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“For someone that’s been in Philly for as long as he had, being kind of the face of the franchise for a while, we all understood that when you’re in a certain place for a long time and you come somewhere new, it’s probably pretty hard on him,” said Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette. “But I think he’s fit in really well. He came in with a very unselfish heart.”

The last time Giroux walked into a new NHL locker room was in 2008, when he made his debut. Giroux was drafted 22nd overall in 2006 by Philadelphia, a promising forward from Gatineau in the Quebec Major Junior League. For the next 15 seasons and 1,000 games, he would become a star on the Flyers. He had 900 points, including 609 assists, as he’s 10th among active players in helpers. In his best season in Philly, he had 102 points and was fourth in the Hart Trophy voting in 2017-18.

In 2012, his coach Peter Laviolette casually referred to Giroux as “the best player in the world” after he outplayed Sidney Crosby in eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins from the playoffs — a hyperbolic boast that has followed Giroux throughout his career.

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“He brings a lot of different things,” said Laviolette, now coaching the Capitals against Giroux’s Panthers in their first-round series. “He’s a high-end player. He adds balance and depth to an attack that already has a lot of power to it.”

Giroux’s departure from Philadelphia was a surreal one. A pending unrestricted free agent this offseason, he had a full no-movement clause in his contract, controlling if he would be traded and to whom.

On St. Patrick’s Day, with his departure from the Flyers all but a foregone conclusion, Giroux played in his 1,000th career game. The night turned into a prolonged farewell party. His teammates took the ice for warm-ups in jerseys featuring his No. 28, his nameplate and his captain’s “C” on the front. Those teammates banged their sticks on the ice as Giroux took a lap around the ice to salute the fans after the game.

“I feel like I’ve had a great relationship with the fans and the city. I get them. They get me,” Giroux said after the game.

Four days later, he took his talents to South Florida.

Giroux’s final game with the Flyers was his 1,000th. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

“He’s a unique, one-of-a-kind player,” Panthers GM Bill Zito said after the trade.

Laviolette saw that firsthand when he coached Giroux for five seasons in Philadelphia. “He’s an impact player that we talk about in different situations, certainly his faceoffs, the way he plays offense, his hockey sense, power play,” Laviolette said.

Laviolette felt the rich got richer when Florida acquired Giroux. “When you come to Florida and you join their group, he blends in a little bit because they’ve got a lot of guys that have had really good years,” he said.

Blending in was new for Giroux. He had been the veteran captain of the Flyers, and the franchise’s biggest star for about a decade.

“It’s definitely different. When you’re a captain for so many years, the organization will rely on you for a lot of things. Coming here, I’m really not in that position anymore. It’s definitely a change,” he said.

Brunette was happy to add him to a room that includes Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov and former San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton.

“You can never have too many former captains in your room, that’s for sure.”

What’s it like playing with Claude Giroux?

“Terrible,” said Panthers star Jonathan Huberdeau, smiling widely. “No, he’s been awesome. Such a good person. Good guy. He knows the game so well.”

Despite that experience, it took a few games for him to settle in with the Panthers after he arrived, saying that “getting chemistry with guys that you’ve never played with before” was his greatest challenge.

“It takes more than one game or one practice. It’s about being in a situation during the game where you can read off your teammates. It definitely was not there early on, but you slowly get to know where the guys are going to be and you keep building on that,” he said.

Soon he found a unique chemistry with Huberdeau, the Panthers’ 28-year-old star left wing. The duo was dubbed “Girouxberdeau” by locals. By the end of the regular season, Giroux had 23 points in 18 games with the Panthers.

“He’s somebody special. He’s been through the playoffs, made the finals. We need that experience,” Huberdeau said. “When he speaks, people are going to listen to him.”

Giroux has quickly found chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau, left. AP Photo/Reinhold Matay

Off the ice, Giroux was like an exchange student joining classes in the final weeks of senior year. The team chemistry of the Panthers was well-established.

“We have a tight locker room,” Huberdeau said. “Obviously when you have a guy come in who was the captain of another team, he’s confident. He knows what he can do.”

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Giroux said he was happy to blend in, despite his pedigree and stardom.

“I’m a true believer that you don’t need [a letter] to lead. But you come to a new team and there’s a leadership group together, and you’re just trying to complement them and be able to help them,” he said. “I’m not going to change who I am, whether it’s being vocal or trying to lead by example.”

Brunette values that leadership. He values Giroux’s adaptability, having played him with Huberdeau and on a line with rookie center Anton Lundell. Above all, he values Giroux’s determination to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career.

“He just wants to win. Guys like that seamlessly integrate themselves to the team,” Brunette said.

Especially when being on the team is this enjoyable.

“We go out there and have fun. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re so successful,” Giroux said.

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