By Sean Hartnett
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Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have proudly represented the Rangers for a decade and each has earned his share of battle scars on the way to helping lift the club to memorable heights.
The Blueshirts wouldn’t have reached three Eastern Conference finals appearances over the past six seasons and the 2014 Stanley Cup Final if not for the veteran defensemen’s shutdown ability, professionalism and unwavering commitment. No matter when their time with the Rangers comes to end, both Girardi and Staal should be remembered for giving their all to the cause and for being outstanding teammates.
Hockey is a business, however. There’s little time for sentiment and every successful front office is always looking forward. If life were fair, Girardi and Staal would spend the remainder of their professional careers calling Madison Square Garden home and would ride off into the sunset as lifetime Rangers.
They would bid tearful goodbyes as their numbers 5 and 18 are raised to the Garden rafters alongside defensive stalwarts of yesteryear Brian Leetch and Harry Howell.
But this is a salary cap world. In a league where only the best teams can rise above parity, tough decisions must be made in the quest for Lord Stanley. The Rangers have maintained the same core from John Tortorella’s final season behind the Blueshirts’ bench in 2013 through the first four seasons with Alain Vigneault at the helm. That core was built around Girardi, Staal, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller grew into increasingly prominent roles over this stretch.
The Rangers cannot return to the ice on opening night in October with an unchanged core. Although they have averaged 103 points per season under Vigneault, the Blueshirts have fallen short of their Stanley Cup championship goal, including suffering early playoff exits the past two seasons.
Lundqvist remains a franchise netminder whom Stanley Cup hopes are built. McDonagh is a highly proficient defenseman in all situations. Having just turned 28, the smooth-skating captain is in his prime years. Zuccarello is the club’s most effective forward and has led the Rangers in regular season points in each of the past two seasons.
Stepan was displeased with his latest playoff campaign, but he has continually been a 50-plus point center and effective at both ends of the ice. Vigneault stated that he wished to have seen the Kreider he saw in Game 6 of the second round “on a more regular basis.” That said, Vigneault, during the same break-up day press conference, pointed to the evolution of Kreider, Miller and Kevin Hayes as a collective positive.
A right knee injury suffered toward the end of the first round slowed Nash’s playoff production, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old played effective, straight-line hockey throughout the postseason. It’s unclear whether Nash can return to playing 75-plus games and reignite his 35-goal prowess, but his possession-driving contributions across three zones are a big positive for this team. No star player in the league is more underappreciated by his own fan base.
A strong case can be made for bounce-backs seasons in 2017-18 from Stepan and Nash. Lundqvist’s .927 save percentage in the postseason should put to rest any fears caused by a .910 mark during the regular season that was 10 points below his career average. There should be no drop-off in the performances of McDonagh and Zuccarello. Hayes, Miller, Kreider and Mika Zibanejad are on the upward curve.
Girardi and Staal are the outliers of the core group. Their decline in recent seasons has been sharp and the belief that they are no longer capable of 20-minute workloads is backed by copious amounts advanced statistical evidence. According to Puckalytics, Girardi was tied for the fourth-lowest 5-on-5 Corsi (minimum 500 minutes) among defensemen at 44.2. By the same measure, Staal ranked 34th lowest among defensemen, at 46.8. McDonagh finishing 24th lowest on the list at 46.4 is an indication of Girardi’s possession-deficient play tethering the Rangers’ captain to his own end. Though Girardi was a possession-positive player in the opening playoff round, his numbers spiraled during the second-round loss to Ottawa.
Vigneault’s trust in the Girardi and Staal was misguided as the Rangers crashed out of the playoffs against a Senators team they had outplayed and should have put away. The coach’s preference to roll out the duo during crunch time minutes backfired. The Rangers were unable to see out late leads in Games 2 and 5, while the excelling pairing of Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith was pinned to the bench late in regulation in both games.
On Thursday, the first buyout period begins. Girardi and Staal occupied a combined 15 percent of the Rangers’ 2016-17 cap space, at $5.5 million and $5.7 million, respectively, in annual-average value and each possess no-movement clauses. They are prime targets for buyouts in a summer where the Rangers would need to shed salary to re-sign Smith and possibly make a run at top free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
An additional reason for the Rangers to buy out one of the two is the implications of the expansion draft. As the Rangers’ roster stands, the no-movement clauses Girardi and Staal have would force the Blueshirts to protect three defensemen — McDonagh, Staal and Girardi. Buying out one of Girardi or Staal would free up a protection slot and position the Rangers to trade for a valuable defenseman that another team is unable to protect.
If the Rangers were to buy out Girardi on June 15, they would be subject to a $2,611,111 cap hit for next season, $3,611,111 for the following two seasons, and $1,111,111 for each additional season through 2022-23. Should Staal be bought out, the Rangers would carry $2,133,333 cap charge for the next two seasons, $3,133,333 in 2019-20, $3,933,333 in 2020-21, and $1,433,333 in each of the seasons through 2024-25.
The Rangers are in need for fresh legs on the back end. Though the cap penalties are hefty, the option of buying out one of Girardi or Staal would allow the Rangers to pursue free agents and trade targets who can improve their puck management and ability to escape the defensive end.
It’s an essential change for a team that’s stagnated the past two postseasons.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey