There was a time when Dan Girardi wasn’t, well, Dan Girardi. There was a time when he was one of those kids fans were begging for; home grown and ready to make an impact. When he was throwing wet blankets on the other team’s top line.
Girardi has manned the Rangers top pair for a long time. There was a period of his career where you could honestly say he deserved the role and thrived there. In John Tortorella’s grit and grind style that saw a demand for shot blocking and slowing the game down, Girardi blossomed. He can get in front of shots. He can grind along the boards. He’s a big body. He can throw hits. He can do all that.
Back then (even as far back as just five years ago) the game wasn’t nearly as speed and skill as it is now. As the game evolved Girardi didn’t, and he became the face of an advanced stats war between the old school media and the new age media (yes, bloggers) that had nothing to do with him directly, but used him as an example. It was never intentional, but it happened.
The problem? The decision makers on the team didn’t notice his issues until he was very clearly painted as the villain. Even then, no one adjusted a single thing for a full year (and maybe more). There could have been a chance to salvage things in New York had the Rangers acted sooner, but they didn’t. And now we’re all shuffling our feet trying to make heads or tails of these feelings.
Because the truth of the matter is simple: Dan Girardi was a victim of other people’s mistakes.
Glen Sather handed him the contract Jeff Gorton just bought him out of. You would have signed it too. Alain Vigneault continued to put him on the top pair and allowed him to drown with no support. What was Girardi supposed to do, scratch himself? Even extreme situations (like refusing to play Dylan McIlrath despite Girardi struggling while injured) never resulted in the coach swallowing his own pride. Gorton himself could have bought him out last year and elected not to.
And yet, many of the Rangers struggles stemmed from a lack of a true top pair. Ryan McDonagh’s inability to get off the runway was, at least in part, caused by the weight of the load he was carrying. The Rangers were forced to make tough cap decisions because of Girardi, some of which have come back to haunt them. There is no easy way to do it, but Girardi was a problem that had to be mentioned. Even if the reasoning for him having such a negative impact at the end wasn’t his fault.
Through it all, Girardi was a professional. Period. It might mean nothing coming from me (one of the louder voices in the mindset that he needed to be gone) but it’s true.
My wife coached lacrosse in college for many years. There were times when senior classes walked out the door without winning a championship. My comment was always the same to those players: “Your time here was another brick in the foundation of what this team will become. Any future success this group has is because you helped pave the way for them, even if you’re not playing when it happens.”
Girardi is the literal example of that. He was the first group of homegrown kids this team saw after the dark years; a beacon of light. He helped mold some of them into the men they are today. Everyone talks about how 90% of the players are great for the locker room, so it’s somewhat watered down, but Girardi was. He truly was.
He might be the toughest player in the NHL. He might be the toughest player I’ve ever seen play period. He never got hurt. Actually, that’s a lie. He got hurt all the time, he just refused to miss a game or even a shift. There were times I saw Girardi block a shot that would have had a normal human in the hospital and he simply locked his jaw and kept going. He had heart. Miles and miles of it.
His teammates have all written beautiful goodbyes. I’m sure this was hard for a lot of players, as it should have been. It feels like Girardi has been around forever. When Girardi made the All Star Game early in his career it felt like the sky was the limit. And it was ... until it wasn’t. He manned the blue line for the Stanley Cup run, the Eastern Conference Final run, and could have done something special this year if his head coach had maybe played him less. Think about that, too. In a lot of ways this year was a perfect sendoff. He was as close to the Girardi of old as we’ve seen in a long time this postseason. It was a joy to watch, because I think we all knew we were watching the end of his era.
That Girardi, as hurt as he's ever been in his career, gave his all night in and night out, was still blocking shots and putting his body on the line is a testament to Girardi the person and the player. If I could build the perfect hockey player I would take the heart, compete level and toughness from Dan Girardi. No question.
We can talk a lot about who to blame for his career getting to this point, but I feel like that takes away what he did. Girardi was heart and soul, played through pain and injuries, never complained, did the dirty work, took on a hard job, and succeeded for parts of his career. In the face of enormous personal adversity he did the classy thing. I don’t know what I would have done in the same situation, but I doubt I would have handled it as well as he did.
There’s going to be confusion as we talk about this. While it’s sad to see Girardi’s career end this way it was, undoubtedly, the right/best thing for the team. I hope there’s a part of him that knows, however, whatever success the Rangers have moving forward is because of the man and player he was at one point on this team. He’s a building block on this foundation. A damn big one.
Thank you for everything, Dan, it was a pleasure.