For a decade, Dan Girardi has bled Rangers blue. The undrafted free agent who became one of the keys to a core that’s been through the playoff wars that included a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and two Eastern Conference Finals, is at a crossroads as a player.
No one would ever question the prideful 32-year old’s heart. Girardi has been part of a successful franchise built around Henrik Lundqvist. He and Marc Staal are still here along with captain Ryan McDonagh, who anchors a blue line that’s in transition. The wear and tear really showed last season. Girardi struggled mightily. Dealing with daily aches and pains that even included a cracked right kneecap, he still played 74 games and got into two playoff matches in a lopsided first round defeat to Pittsburgh.
It wasn’t just number five who had a tough time. Staal also went through his worst year. While it’s true both returned from serious injuries that required off-season surgery, neither ever was consistent. A trend that also plagued McDonagh, who endured two concussions and missed nine games and another two in the postseason. Kevin Klein also returned from a fractured thumb that limited his effectiveness.
To say the Rangers were bruised and battered would be an understatement. However, all teams deal with injuries. The Pens overcame key losses to win the Stanley Cup thanks to great depth. Bumps and bruises are part of hockey. So are the familiar terms “lower body” and “upper body” along with “out indefinitely” which frustrate fans and media.
Truth be told, the ’15-16 New York Rangers weren’t good enough. It wasn’t just the decline of Girardi and Staal. Overall, the team was less committed to defense. Forwards didn’t always come back. One of the culprits is gone. Derick Brassard was sent packing to Ottawa in a cap cutting deal that returned younger center Mika Zibanejad, who has looked good in the preseason.
That wasn’t GM Jeff Gorton’s only move. He acquired defenseman Nick Holden from Colorado and signed Adam Clendening in an attempt to provide better defensive depth. Both have shown glimpses that they are capable of contributing.
With Dylan McIlrath and Brady Skjei each looking ready for prime time, suddenly the back end doesn’t necessarily depend on Girardi or Staal. Their time can be managed. Particularly Girardi, whose struggles at even strength were hard to ignore. The lack of foot speed allowed opponents to get favorable match-ups, taking full advantage of coach Alain Vigneault. There were instances where his loyalty to a good soldier hurt the team. Pairing him with McDonagh once too many. A reluctance to use McIlrath more when his play with former Ranger Keith Yandle was better.
Last year, McIlrath was the extra who got into 34 games and one postseason. This time, the Rangers are eight deep which leaves the coaching staff with more options. Assuming they keep Glendening, who with his skating and right-handed shot and passing makes him a good power play option, that would mean they’d have to make some tough cuts up front.
Likely candidates include the slow and slower Max Lapierre, who will take part in tomorrow’s exhibition at the Flyers. Josh Jooris is hurt and could be placed on injured reserve. Tanner Glass has to be behind camp standout Brandon Pirri along with key penalty killers Nathan Gerbe and Michael Grabner. Considering that he passed through waivers last year before being recalled, Glass will likely be optioned to Hartford.
Younger forward prospects Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey have done nothing to hurt themselves. Considering that Vigneault has tried both on first and second lines, it’s likely they’ll be part of the starting lineup. Vesey showed chemistry with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider after being shifted to right wing. Buchnevich has shown the ability to get shots through and generate chances. He has an opt out clause back to the KHL if he doesn’t play in the NHL.
On a 23-man roster, you have the option of keeping 14 forwards or eight defensemen. That makes the decision even harder. For the Rangers, it makes sense to go with two extra forwards due to Gorton improving the depth. You don’t go out and add Gerbe, Grabner and Pirri if you’re not gonna take advantage of it.
The dilemma is what to do with Clendening. Only 23 and on his sixth organization, he has proven capable of adding something to the power play. Used on the left point as a right-hand shot, he has been able to get the puck over to Zibanejad for his deadly one-timer from the off wing. Something the Rangers haven’t had since Nikolai Zherdev was still around and to a lesser extent, Ales Kotalik.
It would be easier if they could just bite the bullet and work out an agreement with Girardi, who has continued to look bad in two preseason matches. On several occasions, he got caught out of position leading to goals against or dangerous chances. It’s sad to watch him struggle.
What makes it even worse is the buyout period passed long ago in the summer. The next window isn’t until June of next year when the expansion Las Vegas team will enter the NHL. The plan can’t be to play Girardi daily. Not in a condensed schedule. His minutes must be sheltered. Using him on the penalty kill is fine as long as he isn’t stuck out there. At five-on-five, he remains a problem.
Girardi has full support of the coaching staff and organization. He has vowed to return to form. But of course he’s going to say that. With four years remaining on a contract that pays him an average of $5.5 million per cap hit, Girardi’s contract is one of the worst in hockey. Though at the time we understood the logic with former GM Glen Sather choosing his blood and guts defenseman over Ryan Callahan, who was moved at the 2014 trade deadline for Martin St. Louis.
In choosing to remain loyal to core members Girardi and Staal, Sather decided against re-signing Anton Stralman. He was only their best defenseman against the Kings. Rather than keep him Slats made a huge miscalculation giving Dan Boyle two years at the same cap hit. While Boyle struggled to fit in, Stralman has paired with Victor Hedman to form one of the best top pairings in the game. He’s still only 30 with three years left at an affordable $4.5 million average.
Sometimes, it’s hard to admit mistakes. Gorton has been left with Sather’s which has handcuffed him. In subtracting Brassard, he at least saved on salary and was able to afford Kreider long-term while re-upping key forwards J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes. He also seems to have made a good find in former Providence College defenseman John Gilmour, who has looked good putting up two goals and an assist in preseason.
At the very least, Girardi will start the season as one of the top six on the roster. At this point, he is behind McDonagh, Klein, Skjei, Staal, Holden and McIlrath. However, we know he’ll be ahead of McIlrath which makes no sense. If it’s about being stronger defensively and tougher in front of the net, McIlrath deserves the chance to show what he’s got. Girardi has been tried with Skjei in exhibition. Skjei can at least cover for him. But a Skjei/McIlrath third pair would make better sense.
This isn’t a bash Girardi column. He’s exceeded expectations becoming one of the team leaders during the team’s rise as a Stanley Cup contender. A stand up character guy who will do anything to help them win. The laying out the body to block shots. The balls to the wall approach is easy to appreciate. What he lacks in talent he makes up for in grit and determination.
The issue is the NHL has become faster. It’s more of a speed and possession game. With Girardi’s body breaking down, it’s not a winning formula. Unfortunately, Glendening won’t make the opening roster. Not unless management concedes that there is a need for two extra defensemen, which would be an indictment of Girardi. There’s too much of a glut at forward. So, Glendening will go down to Hartford despite a good camp.
Sometimes, life isn’t fair. The same can be echoed for the business of sports. Sooner or later, the Rangers are going to have to wrap their heads around the big elephant in the room. That Dan Girardi isn’t good enough to be a regular anymore. Nothing he’s shown in exhibition has changed that. Unless something drastically changes when the season starts against the Islanders on October 13, his days are numbered.
As one of his biggest supporters, it hurts to have to write this column. Of course, I’m rooting for him. I would rather be wrong. I won’t boo him. I never boo our players. I support them no matter what. They aren’t immune to criticism. Here’s hoping Danny G still has something left to give.