By Sean Hartnett
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Throughout his entire hockey life, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi has fought against labels and has shed them as often as an amphibian sheds its skin.
Back as an Ontario Hockey League amateur, the 6-foot-1 defenseman flew under the radar at three consecutive NHL drafts from 2002-04. Thirty organizations declined to roll the dice on the Welland, Ontario, native, and 874 men were drafted between those years. Girardi was not one of them. He lacked imposing size, elite speed and eye-catching tools to separate himself from the pack of NHL hopefuls.
General managers around the league probably wish they could turn back time to invest a late-round pick in Girardi. Had any of these executives snatched Girardi in the ninth round, they would have been hailed as a genius for landing an overlooked right-handed blue liner who could devour 26-minute nightly workloads during his peak years.
Fast forward to present day. Girardi, now an alternate captain, has been maligned by vocal pockets of the Rangers’ fan base and used as a punching bag by analytics experts to prove their points. Advanced statistics have an important place in modern hockey, helping teams, writers and fans connect the dots. What analytics can’t do is paint the total picture. The eye test is equally important. Small, but very critical details provided by scouts cannot be replaced by graphs and charts.
Girardi has made his living for 11 NHL seasons in the gray area that isn’t tabulated in the box score or crunched through fancy stats. Some of the things he does to help the Blueshirts aren’t always highlighted during a broadcast. Like when he takes the right angle to clog a shooting lane, or when he uses proper body positioning and gap control to his advantage, or when he might get away with a sly cross-check while defending his net that throws off the timing of an opponent, or when he gladly absorbs punishment in the corners if it helps his team and wears down the opposition.
After all these years, Girardi still clings to the idea of being the workman who desires to make teammates better. Paired alongside the youthful legs of 22-year-old rookie Brady Skjei, he doesn’t mind playing the role of stay-at-home vet.
“Let him do his thing, I’ll stay back and be the safety valve,” Girardi said. “I think it helps his game with him being able to take a little chance, get up the ice and use his speed and skating ability. I think we compliment each other well. It’s kind of like when me and Mac (Ryan McDonagh) played together when he first came into the league. A young guy with the good skating ability and I’m kind of the safety valve back there. Hopefully, I can stay that way the whole year.”
The 32-year-old defenseman made a standout return on Sunday night, scoring the game-winning goal in a 3-2 home victory over the Arizona Coyotes. Girardi skated for 19:15 and recorded two shots on goal, three hits and two blocked shots in his first game back since recovering from a hip flexor injury.
How defensemen are being evaluated in the NHL is changing. Progressing play, making a good first pass, quick transitions, generating possession and the ability to sustain offensive zone time are important hallmarks of what organizations are using to measure the position these days. That said, every team is still going to need a lunch pail, defense-first blue liner of Girardi’s ilk.
“(Girardi) is a big part of our d-core and competes hard every night,” alternate captain Marc Staal told WFAN.com. “When he’s playing solid, heavy and physical, it makes our team that much stronger. He came to camp with the right attitude and ready to work. There’s a lot of guys in this room that want to improve on last year. He’s doing everything to get back on track and he’s done that so far.”
During the summer, general manager Jeff Gorton and head coach Alain Vigneault stated their belief that Girardi could rebound after an injury-plagued 2015-16 season. Among NHL defensemen who skated at least 750 minutes last season, Girardi finished last with a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 41.7. It’s very possible that last season was an aberration and the Rangers can still trust the veteran blueliner with important minutes.
“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 in July. “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. I really believe, and the organization believes, that Dan Girardi will be better this season.”
“He’s given me every indication that the player who was so good for this organization for a long time, the warrior that put his body on the line for his team and his teammates, I think that’s the Dan Girardi that we’re going to see,” Vigneault said in September.
No Ranger has been placed under a more intense microscope by the media and fans than Girardi, yet there are few players who are more beloved and appreciated inside the team’s dressing room.
“I’m so happy for him,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “He’s been working really hard, getting ready for camp, getting ready for the season. Then right away he has to sit out for a few games, that’s never easy, but I just love the way he competes out there. When he gets the game-winner like that, it’s all smiles here.”
Following Sunday’s victory, Vigneault did not rule out the possibility of Girardi regaining his place on the first pairing alongside McDonagh and spoke of the success the duo has enjoyed over the years. As useful as advanced stats are, there isn’t a way of measuring Girardi’s determination and his ability to adjust his game to compensate for any steps lost through injury and age.
You can throw specialized statistics and similar age comparables into a blender, but in the end they are just projections. Girardi’s career has been built on defying expectations and conventional wisdom. That’s why the Rangers’ coaching staff, front office and teammates still believe he can be a positive this season.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey