Throughout these Inaugural Roundtable Awards I feel the general response has been good in respect to the ones who’ve won the respective awards. There have been some close calls but I’ve spoken to them and why one instead of the other.
If there is any award in sports that can drive me up a wall, from the pure name and selection process, it is that of Most Valuable Player. Often times the player deemed most valuable to his or her team is more-so the one that is simply the league’s most outstanding player. When there are teammates within the top five of each other in an MVP vote process doesn’t that show why neither of those players is the most valuable to their team considering they have as good of an option on the roster?
I could go on and on with that tangent for a considerable length but I hope that sets the tone. Just because you ended the season with the most goals, most assists, most points, best plus/minus, most wins in net, best save percentage, or shutouts doesn’t necessarily reflect a complete body of work – not really. So when I say that Félix Girard is the Roundtable’s selection for Most Valuable Player of the 2015-16 Season I hope those that didn’t see him play stick around to read the following. Because those who really watched the Milwaukee Admirals play this season know just how crucial of a figure Girard was to the team every single game.
Unless you are a Californian team in the American Hockey League you are tasked with playing a 76-game regular season schedule. This season there was only one player who played every single regular season game for the Admirals, Girard. The next closest would be his winger on the top penalty killing unit, Frédérick Gaudreau, who was healthy scratched on opening night before suiting up the rest of the season.
Girard may not have had the offensively flashy season that his fellow French Fry had but it was a solid progression from his first pro season. In 2014-15, Girard scored 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists) in 61 games – missing the rest of that season from mid-March due to injury. In 2015-16, Girard scored 21 points (5 goals, 16 assists) in 76 games. This season’s stat-line includes points on both sides of special teams where he had 3 shorthanded points (2 shorthanded goals, 1 shorthanded assist) as well as an assist on the power-play. I know, I know. Just a single assist from the power-play? Well, keep in mind that Girard’s game isn’t an offensive one. It’s a defensive one. Girard’s ability in the face-off circle is astonishingly good. He had to have taken the majority of defensive zone face-offs for the Admirals this season and it started to become a running gag on the press section that “if Girard is on the ice, the team can go for those home run style stretch passes without the fear of icing the puck because they’ll win the draw and try it again until it works.” With that level of confidence in your center to win face-offs why wouldn’t you use that on the power-play? It wasn’t until the very end of the regular season when the Admirals started rolling #16 on the ice as part of the power-play. He did what he normally does, too. He won the face-offs and let those around him really shine.
The best aspect of Girard’s game comes in an area of high level importance that can be taken for granted, the penalty kill. I’ve been watching Milwaukee Admirals hockey from up close and behind the curtain since the 2012-13 season. I have never watched another player on the ice perform better on the penalty kill than Girard. The only Admirals players that I can think of are Austin Watson and Mark Van Guilder both of whom Girard has matched their two great assets and exceeded them by adding one of his own. Watson was a puck magnet of a player when it came to blocking shots. Girard doesn’t shy away from laying the body down, either. Van Guilder was tremendously skilled at winning face-offs and was a great penalty killer because of it. Girard is a better face-off man than Van Guilder. What is it that Girard offers that those two don’t? Incredible skating ability to hound puck carriers and make those plays along or back to the blueline risky if botched. Girard is fast of feet and fast of mind. The teams he goes up against know that. And that gets in your head when you know your time and space isn’t what it could be. The Admirals ended the 2015-16 season with a 84.9 penalty kill to slot them in at eighth best in the AHL and third best in the AHL’s Western Conference. Girard was a massive part of that accomplishment.
If there were any last statement to be made on Girard as Roundtable’s Most Valuable Player for the 2015-16 Season it would come in the form of setting the right example and tone for the team. Not only is everything written above how he went about his business that “setting the tone” is quantifiable in the form of just how often the Admirals coaching staff saw fit to begin hockey games with Girard’s line for the opening puck drop. Girard played in all 76 games for the Admirals this season. He started 18 games for the Admirals this season with the bulk of those responsibilities coming in playoff mode. From 3/12/16 to the end of the regular season, a span of 16 games, the Admirals started Girard for 12 games and would start him for all 3 games of their 2016 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. Girard wasn’t Mr. Flash. He wasn’t your human highlight reel. He was the best player on the ice that you didn’t even think about as you went home from Admirals games this season. When the Vladislav Kamenev‘s or Kevin Fiala‘s of the game are getting so much attention they themselves are quick to praise someone such as an Adam Payerl on their line for being the grunt worker that makes life easier for them to be them. Girard is just that type of player and offers so much to the big picture of a hockey game that he might get lost out in all the flashy teenage prospects that enter the pipeline. He’s the table setter of the Admirals.
It’s funny to think about that last sentence, the table setter, when thinking back on this season. The day that the Admirals announced their official move across the street to the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena all three members of the French Fries were on-hand and I jokingly told Jimmy Oligny that he was the heart and soul of that group. I said that in the sense that Oligny is often the one who keeps things the lightest of the three and seems to be the one that gets everyone laughing. While that might be the case off the ice the story on the ice is that the heart and soul of the Admirals is Girard. When reviewing just how much Girard was utilized to set the right tone for playoff level hockey late in the season in makes you wonder what the 2014-15 season might have been had Girard not suffered a season ending shoulder injury on 3/14/15 in Texas. For all the thoughts of “what if” from that season which saw the Admirals miss out on playoff hockey for the first time in twelve consecutive seasons – what if Girard didn’t get hurt? What if the Admirals made the playoffs last season and players had playoff experience for this season?
Plenty of amusing question marks when thinking back on what Girard’s injury at the end of his first pro playing season actually meant to the Admirals. What isn’t a question mark is his status for next season. He’ll be back. And the Admirals will have their main motor from day-one to set the right tone for the 2016-17 season. The only question that becomes one in need of answering is whether or not being a supremely talented defensive minded competitor has him lost on the Nashville Predators radar compared to all the young blood that surrounds him. Is Girard NHL quality? My answer, when you consider playing time for the Predators these days is limited to bottom six level work, is 100% yes.
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