NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Claude Giroux's play was a microcosm of the Philadelphia Flyers' 2013-14 season.
After 15 games, Giroux had no goals, seven assists and a minus-11 rating; the team was 4-10-1, last in the Metropolitan Division and 15th in the Eastern Conference.
From that point on, however, Giroux had 28 goals and 79 points in 67 games and was a Hart Trophy nominee, while the Flyers went 38-20-9 to finish third in the division.
However, their season ended with a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conferenc First Round. The effort exerted to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs left the Flyers unable to get past the first round.
"We need a good start so we're not climbing up the standings like we were last year," Giroux said. "That drained us a little bit. Every game was a have-to-win."
Part of a better start this season will come with continued maturation from Giroux. Entering his third season as captain, the 26-year-old admits he's still finding his way as a leader. Part of that growth comes from the adversity he and the Flyers faced last season.
"Just don't read into things too much," he said of what he took from 2013-14. "Go out there and play the game. It's a beautiful game; you have to go out there and enjoy it. If you start thinking about it too much or stressing about the little things, that's when you're not focusing on the game anymore, so just go out there and play the game."
Those who watched Giroux could tell the Flyers' struggles were wearing on him, especially early in the season.
"I think the biggest thing about [Giroux] is he puts a lot of pressure on himself and he's starting to realize he doesn't have to do everything by himself," teammate Wayne Simmonds said. "We have a close-knit group of guys and we do everything for each other. Now he's not putting as much pressure on himself. That's why after that slow start last year he put up the numbers he's always done. If he's a little more loose, the better he'll play."
Giroux understands better now the need for him to take a more relaxed approach to things.
"My composure needs a little work," he said. "But there's not a better way to be a leader on the ice than by example. You want to be able to talk a little bit and get the boys going. At the end of the day, you have to go out there and do your job."
Part of that job this season will be helping his teammates be in better shape for training camp. Flyers coach Craig Berube said subpar conditioning was one reason for the early struggles last season, and in conversations with players during the offseason the bar was raised for what fitness level would be acceptable when training camp started.
"The demand for us to be in better shape is there," Giroux said before camp opened. "We're professional athletes. If you're not in your best shape, you're not doing your job. Guys got the message."
Giroux sustained a lower-body injury on Sept. 19 during the Flyers' first on-ice workout. He'll miss two weeks and though he likely won't play in any preseason games, he's expected to be ready for the regular-season opener Oct. 8 against the Boston Bruins.
In or out of the lineup, Giroux will have the biggest role in the team's leadership group, but he'll have some new players assisting him. Scott Hartnell, who was an alternate captain last season, was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets; defenseman Kimmo Timonen, another alternate captain, is unlikely to play again while being treated for blood clots in his leg and lungs.
One player who could step into more of a leadership role is Simmonds, who set career-highs last season with 29 goals and 60 points, and was third in the NHL with 15 power-play goals.
"He's a great leader," Giroux said. "He goes out there and there's nobody that works harder than him on the ice. … I think he's loving the challenge. He's playing a lot of minutes on the ice. In the room he's one of our leaders now. He enjoys the role and everybody respects him on the team."
None are more respected than Giroux, however. He knows that as he goes, the team goes. So a quick return to health and continued maturation in his off-ice duties will be a boon toward accomplishing the Flyers' goal of playing deeper into the spring.
"We have something to prove," Giroux said. "You can see guys want it a little bit more. I don't know if it's just me, but it's obviously a good feeling."