“A real love story is sometimes exhausting. A romance is deliberately constructed to yield a certain result; the ambiguities are trimmed out, so it's neater and more pleasing to our hearts. But you don't live a love story, you live a life.” - Melissa Pritchard
I’ve read a handful of tributes to Dan Girardi and, with no disrespect intended, they left me feeling uneasy. There have been some which read like an obituary, exaggerating the good while glossing over - even spinning into a positive - the bad. You see, it would be less pleasing to view him in anything but a positive light. There are others that treat his departure as if it’s sending one’s first car to the junkyard. It was ugly and a piece of junk, but it was my first car, and I feel nostalgic about it. You were a problem and had to go, Girardi, but you were a great guy and gave it your all. So thanks and see ya!
In my opinion, neither does Girardi justice. I find both to be patronizing for different reasons. Maybe more importantly, I don’t think either approach accounts for the genuine good Girardi did actually do as a Ranger, and not just in a spiritual way. As I reflect on Girardi’s tenure as a Ranger, I find myself focused on teenagers and newer fans, who weren’t around during Girardi’s earlier years and perhaps don’t fully understand how we got to where we are today. My account surely won’t be perfect, but it’s the most genuine memoir I can offer.
Ironically, Girardi’s Ranger career got its start in the same situation that categorized its end. An underachieving 2006-2007 Rangers team was held back by an inadequate defensive corps. Former defensive stalwart Darius Kasparaitis, then 34, was incapacitated by a body breaking down from injury. Girardi was called up in late January. The reaction from fans and pundits to the call-up of an unheralded defenseman with modest minor league production was, at best, indifferent. What was initially a quick look turned into a permanent NYC stay for Girardi. He shored up the back-end with unspectacular but efficient defense. Girardi played a big role in the Rangers’ first-round sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers, doing his part to shut down Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.
The good-natured joke regarding Girardi in that rookie year concerned his inability to register his first NHL goal. Even in minor and junior hockey, his offensive output was nothing of note. So of course, Girardi scored 10 goals in his sophomore year. It was a feat of overachievement, sure, but that’s what has come to define Girardi’s career. A player who rose above the fate the Hockey Gods conscripted him to.
The 2007-2012 period was mostly good for Girardi. He earned more trust from Head Coach Tom Renney, then even more from John Tortorella. In that time, the Rangers had 50.6% of unblocked shots at even strength when Girardi was on the ice (Puckalytics). During a number of playoff battles against the Washington Capitals in that time, he managed a 51.6% Corsi - again not adjusted for score or usage - in over 220 minutes against Alexander Ovechkin. All of these numbers are certainly adequate standing alone, but even more impressive in a Tortorella system that wasn’t analytically kind. As much as Dan Girardi is negatively associated with advanced statistics today, for a sizable part of his tenure with the Rangers they reflected kindly upon him.
Girardi made the All-Star Game in 2012, and while that wasn’t fully deserved, he of all people did deserve major recognition for how far he had come. The likes of Steven Stamkos, Pavel Datsyuk, and Erik Karlsson were among the superstars who didn’t score in the game. Dan Girardi did. Yes, a meaningless goal in a meaningless game, but nonetheless a great moment that yet again summed up his propensity for achieving things the Hockey Gods never meant for him to achieve.
A prime Henrik Lundqvist and a rising Ryan Mcdonagh certainly propped him up, but Girardi still held his own in ugly minutes on the top pairing of a 2012 Rangers team that surprised everyone, won the East, and made it to the Conference Final. His +1.02 Corsi Rel was impressive given the fact that the Rangers were effectively using two defensive pairings the entire season. Girardi was in his mid-20s, producing like a legitimate top-four shutdown defenseman, and had a contract that erred towards slight underpayment, if anything. All was good.
From there, it started to go downhill. Injuries and age started to do the things that injuries and age do to people. Analytics started to go mainstream during the 2013-2014 season, and the longer the season went the worse Girardi looked. Nonetheless, the Rangers committed to a long-term contract for him. While still at that point a perfectly competent NHL defenseman, he was the clear weak link on a Stanley Cup Final defense that otherwise had Anton Stralman and Kevin Klein, the other righties, thriving. The rest should be well known. The Rangers lost the series, with Girardi’s blunder with the puck in Game One a big decider. Anton Stralman departed. Girardi began a steep decline in 2014-2015 capped by a disastrous Conference Final against Stralman’s Lightning. Two more seasons of aging and injuries resulted in Ryan Mcdonagh being left out to dry and the team struggling to navigate the salary cap while still fielding a competent defense. Two premature playoff exits resulted.
If Girardi had been traded at the 2014 deadline, as he almost was, then he’d unequivocally be viewed today as a fan favorite; a cult hero. If had left even as late as the fall of 2015, the memories would be overwhelmingly positive, even if not perfect. Instead, what we have is a player who was very good for five-and-a-half years, then a detriment for another four-and-a-half. How do we come to understand Dan Girardi’s tenure with the Rangers? Was it good? Was it bad?
I don’t have a good answer now, and I don’t know if I ever will. The ESPN and cable news debate machines have ushered in a society that demands binary, over-simplified choices. The story of Dan Girardi is not one that fits that narrative. For a long time, there was no easier player to root for in the NHL. For another long time, his presence - not he himself, I emphasize - became the source of perfectly warranted anxiety and resentment. Was it all worth it? Which direction does the see-saw favor? Would I erase Girardi’s productive Ranger years from memory if it meant the Rangers could get a re-do on the 2014-2017 Cup chase with a legitimate first-pairing defenseman in his place?
Again, I don’t have an answer, and I have no desire to dive into that philosophical abyss. Nontheless, I will not reflect on Dan Girardi’s tenure with the Rangers as a love story. Because Dan Girardi didn’t live a Rangers love story. He lived a life. There were good and bad and ugly moments. There were amazing, prideful, awe-inspiring moments. There were agonizing, frustrating ones. There were times he epitomized the team’s success and times his play stood in the way of it. If Sophocles or Shakespeare wrote a story about a hockey player, then it would be Eric Lindros. If Disney did, then it would be Ray Bourque. And if Kurt Vonnegut or Christopher Nolan did, then it would be Dan Girardi.
The only certainty and comfort I can find is in Dan Girardi himself. Most undrafted players who make it to the NHL fit the mold of Torey Krug or Martin St. Louis, who were gifted but simply overlooked because of size. Or, they’re physical grinders who fill up the back of a roster, like Cody McLeod or J.T. Brown.
But Dan Girardi was neither of those. He had no discernible physical gifts - be it size, skating ability, puck poise, or something else - that made him a late bloomer. He simply willed himself from an overage OHL year, to the ECHL, to the AHL, to a cup of coffee in the NHL, and finally a legitimate half decade as a top-four defenseman on a good team. He was a universal favorite among teammates, coaches, the beat writers who covered him, and the fans. In a city that is a Venus flytrap for drama, not a single remotely unsettling quote or bit of news was associated with him for the entire 11 years he was here. He was a revelation on HBO’s 24/7. He gave his all on the ice, playing 20+ minutes for months on end through injuries that would have put any other sane human on bed rest. He was accountable to himself, self-aware when he struggled and never once even publicly alluded to frustration with the fanbase or his teammates no matter how much the walls of judgment caved in on him.
Coming to terms with Dan Girardi’s tenure with the Rangers requires serious compartmentalizing, and even then still comes with a number of existential predicaments. But as he leaves New York, there is no doubt about how I - and I imagine everyone else - feel about Dan Girardi. Sports fans are often forced to reconcile rooting for a player who did something criminal, or expressed a bigoted opinion, or acts classless. Dan Girardi the person was nothing but the ideal representative of this franchise. Let’s hope he can make a difference wherever he plays next.