If you frequent this corner of the internet, or simply follow the New York Rangers at any capacity, you're well aware of the recent struggles of Dan Girardi. The most deployed Rangers defenseman in 5v5 situations last season, Girardi was not very good at driving possession, a big no-no for a blue liner, and even more so for one who doesn't contribute offensively. Girardi has always been considered a more stay-at-home, shutdown player, but when exactly did that stop being the case, and why?
What's important to note is that Girardi is in fact in a decline of sorts. Looking at his possession numbers alone (again, a very important metric for measuring the efficiency of a player), Girardi's CF% has dipped dramatically since the 2008-09 season. After two steady years of posting 54.3 and 53.4 CF% from 2007-2009—a stretch in which he played in all 164 Rangers regular season games—Girardi's effectiveness tailed off.
Taking this a step further, when Girardi was driving possession back in that 2007-09 period, he was also posting a positive CorsiRel, meaning his overall efficiency wasn't a flash in the pan. Interestingly, how his defensive partner fared when not out with Girardi, who in that first year was Fedor Tyutin, an in the second was Wade Redden, fluctuated by season. Tuytin was worse when apart from Girardi, while Redden, who was a corpse by the 08-09 season, was better without Girardi.
That may have been an indication Girardi's tough times were about to begin, but for the sake of this story, we're going to explore an alternate route.
Girardi was never a smooth skater, but watching film from his 2007 days versus this past season, he certainly has lost a step. And right around when Girardi's numbers started to dip, there was one fundamental change both he and the team went through. With 21 games remaining in the 2008-09 season, John Tortorella took over as the Rangers head coach. And under Tortorella, players were expected to shot block, and interesting skill to stress because, even when it's most useful, it requires not having the puck. And as we've gone over that's a rather important element to winning games: having the puck.
You can see how the change in coaching altered Girardi's play. His blocked shots by season spiked, as did where he ranked among the league's top shot blockers.
Girardi Blocked Shots By Season
|Year||Blocked Shots||League Rank|
** -- lockout shortened 48-game season
One of the initial, astonishing figures that jumps out in this chart is that somehow, in the 48-game shortened season, Girardi blocked more shots than he did in the 82 games he played in both 07-09 and 08-09. That should be a major indicator of how far Girardi's possession plummeted.
So while Girardi was already fleet of foot, he was being asked to take more knocks, a potential oil patch waiting to slip him up.
So did Tortorella help accelerate Girardi's descent?
This is a rather interesting question. Forcing the Rangers into a dump-and-chase style will certainly stifle any team's ability to possess the puck. And by tossing the puck into the other team's zones, giving them the ammo for shots, and then asking players to get down in front of those shots, it's a formula for wear-and-tear.
So what you're left with is a player who already might have been overrated by some, or posting numbers he couldn't sustain, put in a system that magnified those deficiencies. In terms of how it effected his possession, by weakening an already weak element to a defenseman's game like skating ability, it forces him to try to anticipate plays, and make more difficult, longer passes that he could have skated into. Where players like Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman were so good at retrieving the puck, and using their skating ability to create a passing lane, Girardi gets to the puck, and often doesn't do much skating after he retrieves it and then attempts to move it.
In his first year under Alain Vigneault, Girardi finished eighth in the league in shot blocking, still getting in front of a ton of attempts, but falling out of the league's top six for the first time since Tortorella took over. Coincidence? There's probably about as much of a coincidence there as there is that Girardi posted his highest CF% since ... yupp, you guessed it, the last full season before Tortorella was behind the bench.