Without question, it has been a tough year for New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi. He had been starting to show signs of decline over the past couple of years before essentially falling off a cliff this season.
I have not been bashful in my criticism of Girardi throughout this very trying season, and the way the first two games of the Rangers’ playoff series against Pittsburgh played out only lend further support to that criticism.
No Girardi, No Problem
Girardi was (and apparently still is) battling the effects of a hard fall into the boards that occurred when ex-teammate Brian Boyle of the Tampa Bay Lightning shoved him down late in a regular season game the previous week. Despite that, he played in Game 1. It did not go well, to say the least.
Even though Girardi might not have been 100%, that does not excuse his play that led to the first Pittsburgh goal, where he was banking on getting an icing call when the Penguins dumped the puck in, rather than hustle to the loose puck. Seconds later, the puck was in the back of the Rangers’ net.
A promising early team effort in Game 1 eventually spiraled out of control, thanks in large part to that play and a couple of additional gaffes by Girardi. There was his no-chance floater of a shot right into Patric Hornqvist, who caught Girardi and defense partner Marc Staal flat-footed and quickly turned it the other way to spring Sidney Crosby on a breakaway. Crosby made no mistake on a top-shelf shot, and the Rangers were then down by two. Later, in the third period, with the Rangers down 3-1, Girardi failed to cover Hornqvist in front on a penalty kill, resulting in another Penguins goal.
Prior to Game 2, head coach Alain Vigneault announced that Girardi would not play because of an injury related to “the whole thing.” In a figurative sense, Vigneault was quite right.
When the veteran defenseman missed Game 2, the Rangers looked better in their own end. Imagine that. Dylan McIlrath, who replaced Girardi in the lineup, only got about nine minutes of ice time, but looked fine overall. While the penalty kill was still a sore spot (two goals against), the Rangers overall did not have the same critical mistakes that cost them in Game 1. Their transition out of their own zone was also very smooth, allowing them to create pressure five-on-five, to the tune of four goals.
These stark differences all became evident once Girardi was out of the lineup, which is not a coincidence.
Girardi did not practice Monday ahead of Tuesday’s Game 3 at Madison Square Garden, so it appears he will be out of the lineup once again. With Raphael Diaz being called up as well, the Rangers are clearly bolstering their depth on the back end with both Girardi and captain Ryan McDonagh out of the lineup (though it is possible McDonagh could suit up for Game 3, as he did practice on Monday).
That said, it does not seem that Girardi will be out for too much longer, and when he is healthy, Vigneault has indicated that he will be back in the lineup, while also defending the long-time Blueshirt from what he feels has been unfair criticism (for the record, I think the criticism is perfectly fair).
Contrary to what Vigneault appears to be set to do when Girardi is healthy again, the Rangers would be best served to scratch Girardi in the playoffs going forward, regardless of his health. McIlrath has looked solid all season, despite not getting a consistent opportunity, and Diaz has enough foot speed — something Girardi no longer possesses — to work himself out of trouble more often than not. He can also contribute offensively.
Even lefty Brady Skjei, who has filled in for McDonagh very effectively and shown why the Rangers selected him in the first round of the 2012 draft, is capable of playing the right side in place of Girardi. As Larry Brooks of the New York Post noted, certain circumstances in Game 2 forced Skjei to play several minutes on that side, and he did not look out of place whatsoever.
With respect to Girardi, the Rangers have to make the difficult but right decision, not only for the playoffs this year, but for next season and beyond. Girardi is simply not effective enough anymore to see regular ice time in the NHL. It’s a sad thing to say for a player who improbably worked his way from an undrafted free agent to one of the league’s most solid, reliable defensemen. He has given a lot to the Rangers, but the organization cannot use his past accomplishments to justify putting him out on the ice when he is clearly less than a shell of his former self.
Cutting ties with Girardi, whether it’s via trade (unlikely) or buy-out (more likely), is the right move for the Rangers to make. That would also help free up more salary cap space for the club to re-sign Keith Yandle. As Brooks also explained, Skjei’s ability to play the right side keeps that left-side slot open for Yandle, a unique talent who the Rangers would be foolish to let go.
With the likely retirement of Dan Boyle, the Rangers, if they make the right moves, could be looking at a defense corps of McDonagh, Yandle, Marc Staal (another player the club should consider moving, but he has been much better lately) on the left side, and Kevin Klein, Skjei, and McIlrath on the right side. Not too bad. Time will tell, however, if general manager Jeff Gorton will be gutsy enough to follow through on this course of action.