Sigh...Damn Flyers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Hello everyone. As some of you may know, Nathan is an unabashed Rick Nash fan. If Rick Nash was a color, he would paint his house in that color. Well, I have about that same level of fandom for Claude Giroux. I first noticed him during his final playoff run as a junior, in which he posted a ridiculous 51 points in 19 games. As I've pointed out in a previous post, that was one of the best playoff runs in QMJHL history. He's by far my favorite non-Wild player (Your #1 overall spot is still safe, Mikko Koivu). Strangely enough, I'm not that big a fan of James Sheppard, whom the Wild chose in 2006 instead of Giroux. We all know how that story went: Sheppard became one of HW's favorite scapegoats while Giroux became the NHL13 cover boy and is now a bona-fide superstar.
What if the Wild had nabbed Claude Giroux, the steal of the 2006 draft? What if, for the sake of this post, Sheppard had ''fell'' into the Flyers' talons? Both players and both teams' fates would have surely changed.
Let's try to make some sense out of all this.
It would seem as though Giroux had a much better junior career than Sheppard, yet Giroux was overlooked by many teams and was even an undrafted junior. He was INVITED by the Gatineau Olympiques, in what has to be one of the most brilliant coups the organization made, because Giroux brought them a championship with that 51-point playoff run.
Giroux has also won a countless number of awards, ranging from QMJHL rookie of the year to the John Wannamaker award, given to Giroux for his contributions to the Flyers by the Philadelphia Sports Congress. I can't seem to find any awards James Sheppard may have won, although there exists a James Sheppard award, given to a Sackville, Nova-Scotia minor league player who examplfies leadership, has strong academic results and outstanding athletic ability. I've been trying to find out if it's the same James Sheppard. It probably is, since Shep is from Sackville.
So what is it that made people doubt Giroux? What is it that made Sheppard a more appealing choice?
Scouting Report: Sheppard projects to become a quality power forward in the pro ranks, but needs to work on his skating in order to fully maximize his vast potential... in his second QMJHL campaign in Cape Breton, he finished second on the club with 84 points, but led the Screaming Eagles with 54 assists... is capable of playing all three forward positions, but is expected to play left wing when he reaches the NHL... does a lot of little things to help a hockey team win, which adds to his overall stock...owns two-way and leadership qualities that endear him to his teammates...
Impact: The Wild need to add more size up front, so the acquisition of Sheppard is a nice fit. He's a budding power forward with the ability to play either center or left wing. There may be a few concerns about his high-end upside, but his two-way acumen should blend in nicely within the confines of the Minnesota system.
Scouting Report: A lack of size will always hurt Giroux's NHL status, but his offensive prowess is undeniable. He led all QMJHL rookies with 103 points in 69 games in 2005-06... led Gatineau and finished in a tie for 11th place in the overall scoring race... an Ontario native, Giroux was passed over in the OHL Priority Selection and wound up with Gatineau as a walk-on... owns an impressive offensive arsenal and plenty of hockey sense... displays the guts required for smaller players to flourish in the pro game... must play a simpler game when the competition becomes greater...
Impact: In very un-Philly fashion, the Flyers add a tremendous offensive boost for the future. They had enough size and grit but needed more scoring potential in their ranks. Giroux should eventually develop nicely alongside the likes of Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards et al. He'll need to add some bulk, but he could be the steal of the first round.
Sheppard was the first overall selection by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the last piece to a multi-faceted, multi-season trade between the Eagles and the Halifax Mooseheads. Sheppard made the Eagles out of training camp in his first season, immediately being thrust into a key role on a rebuilding squad. Sheppard shone, with his blend of smooth puck-handling skills and physicality, playing on the team's second line, and finishing fourth in team scoring with 45 points. His mere 14 goals was a bit disappointing, but he made up for it by rounding his game, playing in all situations, and gaining great experience along the way.
Sheppard entered his second season as likely being the first Quebec League player to be selected in the 2006 Entry Draft, and in the short term, was expected to carry the Eagles squad in the 2005-06 season. Much to his chagrin, Sheppard stumbled out of the blocks, going goalless through his first seven games, before turning it around mid-October. There was not a point when he really put his game into high gear over the course of the season, but put forth a very consistent string of performances to put up a strong offensive season, finishing his sophomore campaign with 84 points in 66 games, good enough for second on the team in scoring, helping to lead the Screaming Eagles into the playoffs. He took on a bigger leadership role with the club after the departure of Pittsburgh prospect Stephen Dixon and Guillaume Demers the previous season, and will be counted on even moreso for his experience next season as overager Kevin Asselin moves onto future endeavors. Sheppard was one of ten QMJHL participants in the CHL Top Prospects game in January, picking up an assist.
As opposed to Brassard, fellow top-flight prospect Sheppard is more of a finisher than a playmaker, with a quick, accurate shot. That is not to say that he does not use his teammates effectively, because he is very willing to dispense the puck, but he is more than capable in doing things himself if given the opportunity. Sheppard brings great skating ability and a strong drive to the net with his good-sized frame. He uses his size to his advantage and doesn't mind partaking in the physical game, which helps in his creating space in front of the net and in the trenches along the boards.
Giroux, a native of Ontario, was bypassed in the OHL draft, and was thus a free agent, able to ply his wares in rival leaves. Gatineau offered Giroux a try-out at the start of the season, and he seized the opportunity, playing admirably during training camp, and winning on spot the Olympiques roster. Giroux seized a key offensive role on the team almost immediately, picking up two points in his first game, and a three-point effort in only his third game. Giroux's offensive game continued to impress, as he climbed among scoring leaders, and shot up the Central Scouting rankings.
Over the course of the season, Giroux was named the QMJHL Rookie of the Month twice - in December and March - and by the end of the season, he had surpassed highly-touted 16-year-old Angelo Esposito in rookie scoring, finishing the season with 39 goals and 103 points in 69 games. Giroux was named to the QMJHL All-Rookie Team.
2006-07: Giroux finished the regular season ranked fourth in the Q with 112 points (48 goals, 64 assists) in only 63 games. These totals included an impressive 20 power-play goals and two shorthanded tallies. He also boasted a league-best shooting percentage of 26.1. He was one of Team Canada's final cuts for the WJCs, due mainly to the volume of experienced players returning from the previous year's gold medal-winning squad. Following Gatineau's first-round elimination from the QMJHL playoffs, Giroux signed an ATO with the Phantoms. He appeared in five games, registering two points (one goal, one assist) and six penalty minutes.
2007-08: In his third season with the Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL), Giroux racked up 106 points (38 goals, 68 assists) in 55 games. He was called up to the Flyers for two games before being sent back to the juniors. He was a QMJHL First All-Star Team pick as well as a Canadian Major Junior First All-Star Team selection. He represented Team Canada at the WJC, netting two goals and four assists in seven appearances.
Giroux's greatest talent is his playmaking ability. Boasting excellent hands and great vision, the diminutive winger is able to use his quick skating ability to turn something out of nothing. Giroux, despite his size disadvantage, does not mind getting his nose dirty, and will stand in to take a hit in order to make a play. He does get bodied often, but the shifty winger is agile enough to avoid checks on a regular basis.
Interesting to note that Hockey Future had Sheppard as a 7.5 out of 10 on their talent scale while Giroux was a 8.5 and Sheppard's probability of success was ''B'' while Giroux's was ''A''.
So what happened? Why did the Wild choose Sheppard over the seemingly more appealing Claude Giroux? Well, Sheppard was touted as a scorer, something the Wild desperately needed. Sure Giroux scored more goals, but so did Pierre-Marc Bouchard in Junior. In fact, he scored about the same number of goals per year as Giroux. The fact remained that Giroux was seen more as a playmaker, comparable to...well, Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Only real difference is that Giroux wasn't shy about taking and dishing out hits.
Another factor was size. Sheppard has nice size for a budding NHL player. One of his best skills was keeping the puck on his stick using his body. I remember him drawing quite a few penalties that way, which is the only contribution I can remember from him. Giroux was overlooked his entire career because of his size, so he let his skills do the talking and that's how he became a first-rounder. He easily could have fell some more, the Flyers' pick was seen as a gamble at 22nd, but also a possible steal. Funny story: Bobby Clarke actually FORGOT Giroux's name when he announced the pick.
Claude Giroux Draft Day (via mibro0224)
In short, the Wild didn't want another Pierre-Marc Bouchard, they wanted their first-ever power forward. They needed size, scoring prowess and leadership. They swung for Sheppard. They missed. It happens. How much of that was because of the actual choice of player and how much of that was because of the way they handled that choice? Well...
Both players had different development routes and development for young players is perhaps the most important factor in deciding if they become a good NHLer or not. Sheppard was given an extra year in Junior, where he didn't quite perform up to expectations because he was hindered by an injury. He then skipped Houston and was immediately brought up on the Wild's squad as a 19-year old to play 3rd-4th line minutes.
Meanwhile in Philly...
Giroux was given two more years in Junior, where he finished 4th and 2nd in league scoring respectively. He also helped Gatineau to the President's Cup, awarded to the QMJHL champions, and participated in the Memorial Cup tournament, where he posted a much less impressive goal and assist for 2 points in 3 losses.
After that, he went to the Flyers' training camp. He was deemed not quite ready and was wisely sent to their minor league club, the Phantoms, for some AHL conditioning. He played about half a season there as a point per game player and was called up to the Flyers for the rest of the season where he played about 15 minutes per game and scored about half a point per game. The rest is history.
What if the Wild drafted Giroux?
Would the Wild have brought Giroux up to the Wild after just one more year of Junior like they did with Sheppard? If so, he never would have posted that amazing final playoff run with the Olympiques, which means he never would have won a QMJHL championship. Plus, it's very doubtful he would have been immediately ready for NHL action with his small frame. Giroux may have had more raw talent than Sheppard had, but that means very little if you can't withstand the punishing rhythm of pro hockey. The Olympiques and the Flyers BUILT Giroux into a winner. If the Flyers had rushed him, he probably would have been a broken player, much like Sheppard. Instead, they gave him the opportunity to succeed. They waited until he had nothing else to learn and gave him an adequate opportunity once he came up. Of course, the Flyers could afford to do that because they already had a solid squad.
The Wild, meanwhile, brought Sheppard up seemingly because he had an NHL-ready frame and they needed the bodies. They did the same with Benoit Pouliot, but they dangled him back and forth because the big club and the Aeros, where he was deemed disappointing. They also did the same with Colton Gillies, although he was pretty much projected to become a bottom line player anyway, but they really should have sent him back to Junior or AHL first. These three players were big players compared to Giroux, so would they have handled Giroux in the same fashion? If you look at the small player they drafted, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, they handled him... about the same. They drafted him in 2002, immediately brought him up to the Wild, only playing in the AHL during the lockout. However, in 2002, the lineup looked like...well, what 3 year old expansion team should look like, so maybe that's why they brought him up so quickly.
To sum it up, it's hard to tell if Giroux would have been rushed by the Wild, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did. The track record suggests they would have, but at the same time, they didn't need a Giroux as much as they needed a Sheppard. They did need a clue though.
Would Giroux have made the Wild better?
Well, that's a pretty difficult question too. If we overlook the ''rushed, not-rushed'' argument, Giroux's skill set didn't exactly fixed what was (and still was before Parise got signed) the problem for the Wild: Lack of scoring. Sure, he would have added his fair share of points, but I'm very doubtful of him being quite as good with the Wild as he has been with the Flyers. That being said, he likely would have made the Wild better, but only marginally. In my honest opinion, he simply would not have become the same player.
What about Sheppard with the Flyers?
Again, impossible to accurately tell, but the Flyers were always a robust enough team, so there wouldn't have been any real rush to bring Sheppard up to the big team. They had a good mix of size and offense in 2006 and beyond. That doesn't mean they would have given him as much time as Giroux, but the Flyers aren't known for rushing their prospects. I think with better surroundings and smarter development, Sheppard would have become a much better player.
It seems silly to compare James Sheppard to Claude Giroux, but it's possible that if the roles had been reversed, these two players wouldn't have had such a huge gap in their success levels. It's all about the situations they've been placed in, the people they played with, the people that made their decisions and ultimately, their will. Imagine if Giroux had given up after being undrafted in two OHL drafts. Giroux is comparable to players like Martin St-Louis and Theoren Fleury in that all of them had to work 110% every single day to get where they were at. Sheppard, on the other hand, had a relatively easy road to becoming an NHLer because of his size, but had a pretty bumpy road once he got there. Same goes for Benoit Pouliot and Colton Gillies. It may seem risky, but picking small players almost guarantees an impeccable work ethic.
The draft is such an incertain time. Let's not forget that Giroux was picked 22nd, so 11 more teams passed on him after the Wild picked Sheppard 9th. In fact, Giroux was outside the 1st round in many mock drafts at the time. The draft is a gamble. No one thought Pekka Rinne, Pavel Datsyuk or Jamie Benn were going to be sure-fire stars, they were all drafted in late rounds. We can't really blame the Wild brass for picking Sheppard, he filled the criteria the Wild needed. We can blame the hell out of them for the way he was developped though.
Now, let's thank our lucky stars that Chuck Fletcher is giving Mikael Granlund a chance to become a Claude Giroux and not immediately cursing him to become a James Sheppard.