The elephant in the room for the entirety of the 2015-2016 Rangers' season has been the drastic decline of Dan Girardi. It was a sub-optimal situation before when Girardi was overpaid. Now, his contract is almost besides the point. His play this season has not been that of an NHL defenseman altogether. A player who was once in the middle of the analytical debate has progressively become a source of uniting, as it's become evident to even those who solely evaluate with their eyes that Girardi is not up to snuff.
It has been interesting to watch the rationalization of Girardi's play as the season has advanced. In mid-December, when goaltending could no longer hide the defensive woes, then-beat writer Seth Rothman explained that this was simply a slump for the Rangers' defense and that Girardi "didn't forget how to defend." Around the same time, the New York Post's Larry Brooks was certainly on the mark when he called out Girardi's poor play and even suggested a demotion. However, the implication was that it was a temporary fix. Girardi was "worn down physically and mentally" and needed a break "until he finds his game." Soon after, Girardi missed time with a cracked kneecap, which understandably was used by many to justify Girardi's play. It took only a few decent games in mid-January for Brooks to champion the "returning hockey warrior."
Most interesting has been the response of Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, who has been far harsher on Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle during their Ranger careers. In an article prior to the start of the postseason, Leonard acknowledged Girardi's poor season, but didn't hold back in using injuries and Girardi's character to downplay those struggles and declare his importance to the team. "The Rangers aren't at their best when Girardi is not, and he is too much of a leader not to factor prominently into their plans for better or worse," Leonard wrote. More curious, though, is Leonard's attempted guilt trip. He wrote that "outcry from frustrated fans... reveals how quickly a fan base can turn against a top player even if he has given everything for the sweater he wears," and ends the article by asking, "what would winning a Stanley Cup even mean if one of the players primarily responsible for the organization's sustained success, work ethic and class weren't a major part of their trip to the summit?"
The first two games against the Penguins have reinforced quite clearly that the Rangers are, in fact, at their best without Girardi; not with him. Brooks acknowledged as much. That leaves just the appeals to emotion.
It's obviously absurd to assert the idea that the Rangers winning the Cup without Girardi would hold little meaning. Though there is certainly some pity for Don Mattingly, his absence during the Yankees' dynasty years is an unfortunate footnote. The same for Nomar Garciaparra in Boston. Nobody puts an asterisk on those titles. If we're going to make that determination for Girardi, then why stop there? What about Jaromir Jagr's absence? Ryan Callahan? Tom Renney and John Tortorella? The reality of sports is that not everyone who contributes to the process will be there to see the end result. Dan Girardi is by no means a necessary exception.
As unfortunate as winning the Cup without Girardi might be, even worse would be NOT winning BECAUSE of Girardi. Yes, Girardi has been a great servant to the organization, but the same holds true for Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Dominic Moore, and so on. Stubbornly clinging to Girardi and going down with the ship is also effectively sinking a ship with plenty of other class players who deserve better. At the end of the day, the team is far more important than any individual. Ironically, what makes Girardi so admirable is that he appreciates this more than most. Ranger fans aren't ignoring what Girardi has meant to the team. They're just dealing with the reality that this isn't a Disney movie.
But what's also being missed here is that Rangers fans are begging for a mercy killing. Nobody is "turning" on Girardi in a personal way. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Girardi HAS meant quite a lot to this franchise, and that in itself is a good reason to pull the plug. Michael Strahan is viewed in nothing but a positive light by Giants fans because he left on a high note. In contrast, Brett Favre's legacy in Green Bay is tainted by his blocking of Aaron Rodgers and then playing for Green Bay's rival in Minnesota until his body fell apart.
You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Dan Girardi's legacy is defined by the many great years of service that Leonard cited, but it's also going to be defined by what happens going forward. It's almost certainly downhill from here for Girardi. Continuing to put him in situations to fail isn't honoring his tenure with the Rangers, but instead will only diminish it. Girardi should be out of the lineup during the playoffs and parted with in the offseason because it's in the best interest of the team, but also for the sake of preserving Girardi's legacy. I want to remember Dan Girardi as the undrafted player who started in the ECHL and willed his way to the NHL. I want to remember him as the purely defensive defenseman that amazingly scored 10 goals in his first full season. I want to remember him as the defenseman who reached a level in 2011-2012 nobody thought possible, playing his way into the All-Star Game and succeeding in ugly minutes for a Rangers team that topped the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Final. I want to remember him teaming up with his son, Landon, as stars in HBO's 24/7. I want to remember him for stepping up to the plate and getting the best of Scott Hartnell. I want to remember him as the player that somehow missed just two games in the first five-and-a-half seasons of his career despite getting bludgeoned with pucks and sticks and bodies more anyone in the league.
I don't want to remember Dan Girardi as the biggest reason Henrik Lundqvist's final seasons were wasted. I don't want to remember him as the reason Keith Yandle couldn't be re-signed. I don't want to remember him as the reason Dylan McIlrath was unable to get a legitimate chance to develop a legacy of his own. I don't want to endure multiple years of him humiliating himself as his broken body lets him down and he feels the burden of not living up to his contract and holding the team back. The longer the Rangers let this drag on, the more his legacy will be clouded with ways his presence hurt the team. There's a prevalent straw man argument that people "hate" Girardi and want to see him fail. It's not true at all. It's devastating watching Girardi struggle on the ice, turning the puck over and getting burned down the wing. I hate it. There's no joy in watching a quality person and long-serving player hurting the team and struggling to be what he once was. I don't want to watch it happen anymore. Girardi's tenure with the Rangers has been mostly a good one. Reducing his role now and parting ways this summer would not indicate ungratefulness for what Girardi has done for this team, but rather would serve as an act of preserving that legacy.