By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers alternate captain Dan Girardi endured the rockiest campaign of his decade-long NHL career last season. Beset by injuries, the 32-year-old rarely looked like the elite shutdown defenseman who once made superstars like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby disappear.
Instead, he was a shadow of his former self. Girardi was repeatedly torched on the outside, made constant positional gaffes and demonstrated poor puck management.
How much can he rebound? We’ll find out during the 2016-17 season. Jeff Gorton and the Rangers expect improved play from the veteran blueliner. The general manager said during Monday’s conference call that the team never considered a buyout.
“I know that Dan Girardi has taken a beating in the media here, but you’re talking about a player that’s 32, that’s had a significant injury,” Gorton said. “We’ve seen some real good production from him for many years, and he did, by all accounts, not have the kind of year we wanted or he wanted. But we expect Dan to be better and he expects to be better. The buyout just didn’t make sense for us if you look at it from all sides. It’s something I never considered. I really believe, and the organization believes, that Dan Girardi will be better this season.”
Had the Rangers exercised a buyout, $1.75 million would have counted against the salary cap in 2016-17, $2.75 million in 2017-18, $3.75 million for each of the following two seasons and $1.25 million for the final four seasons, ending in 2024.
Flash back to June 1, 2015. After the Rangers just missed out on a repeat trip to the Stanley Cup Final, Girardi addressed reporters on breakup day on an injured knee and with swelling on his ankle roughly the size of a tennis ball. He had played the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals while gutting through an MCL strain and underwent a bursa excision in the offseason to drain his ankle. His summer training was cut short because of his recovery from said injuries.
During a Dec. 9 game in Vancouver, a blocked shot resulted in a cracked right kneecap. The injury played havoc with Girardi’s season. It was genuinely surprising that head coach Alain Vigneault continued to lean heavily on Girardi with Dylan McIlrath making the most of his ice time. Advanced statistics showed that the Rangers fared well in possession and shot generation when McIlrath was on the ice.
Girardi suffered a concussion on April 5 when former teammate Brian Boyle drove him into the end boards. Symptoms continued into Game 1 of the playoffs against Pittsburgh and Girardi proceeded to sit out the next three games before suiting up for Game 5. Before Game 2, Vigneault described Girardi as having a whole body injury.
“The knee is getting better,” Girardi said at breakup day on April 26. “Obviously, I’m going to take this time to rest and recuperate and use the full month and training period in the summer to make sure everything is feeling good and be in the best shape I can be for next year.”
Girardi has played in 725 regular season games and 110 games in the playoffs. He has absorbed punishment in the corners and through fearless shot blocking, resulting in a laundry list of injuries and a downward spiral in advanced statistics. There is certainly reason to question whether he can return to the form that once made him a highly valued shutdown defenseman that dominated on the playoff stage.
“One hundred percent I can be,” Girardi said. “That’s why they signed me to a long-term deal. Obviously, this year wasn’t the best for me and the whole team, but I think I can be the player I was in the past. I’m using this summer to be ready and this is the turning point for me, I think.”
Despite Girardi’s self-confidence and the Rangers’ belief in his abilities, it’s hard to see him performing up to past standards. He no longer appears capable of handling tough assignments and this past season looked overmatched against the league’s top stars.
Youngster Brady Skjei looked the part when he was asked to assume an increased workload while captain Ryan McDonagh missed key playoff minutes. Skjei excelled on both his natural left side and on the right side. The 22-year-old appears ready to break through into a top-four role given his tremendous skating ability, smart work with the puck and overall reliability at both ends of the rink.
Girardi’s game has never been predicated on speed — even when he skated around as a 22-year-old rookie in the spring of 2007.
“I think you have to use what God gave you,” Girardi told WFAN.com in October. “Sometimes you have to rely on your smarts and be in the right places at the right time. I don’t think I’m the fastest guy on the team by any means, but I feel I can get to the spot where I need to be and be physical. I think if you use your abilities to your advantage, you’re going to have a long career.
“It’s been working for me so far,” he continued. “I’ve never been complacent. I’ve always tried to get better, figure out ways to get stronger and do different things during the season to stay healthy and stay strong. Every day is a learning day.”
More and more the NHL is becoming a speed and possession game. The kind of defensemen who are thriving are the ones who are quick on their skates and fast-thinking. Slower defensemen struggle to keep up. Girardi could fit the bill in sheltered minutes against lesser-skilled opponents if he can cut down on the mental errors that littered his game last season. He might still be able to perform in a lessened, but still-useful role for the Rangers.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey