Not only does Dan Girardi’s departure from the New York Rangers mean one less warrior at MSG, it means the end of an NHL era.
If Dan Girardi had become a relic by the end of his time on Broadway, there’s little doubt that his jersey — and his game – became of the vintage variety immediately.
Girardi’s distinguished 11-year career with the New York Rangers concluded Wednesday with the team’s decision to buy him out. Hardly a surprising development, it marked the end of an era for the Rangers — and even though Girardi might catch on with another team for a few more seasons, a clear indicator that another era is all but over for the NHL.
Girardi will always be remembered as a pillar of a special Blueshirts team that began to emerge in 2006 — not long after he joined the Rangers as an undrafted free agent. Not particularly big or fast, the size of his heart and determination couldn’t be ignored, and he eventually established himself as a top-pair defenseman with his heady play and tremendous grit.
His style — and that of eventual captain Ryan Callahan‘s — went a long way toward bringing an identity to what would become the “Black-and-Blueshirts,” the grinding and beloved group under coach John Tortorella that seemed to live to block shots, play relentless defense in front of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and score when they could. They reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2011-12, marking a return to perennial contention after years of mediocrity and poor roster building.
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The core group reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2014 and the East finals again the next season, but never hoisted the chalice. The team evolved during this period as Alain Vigneault replaced Tortorella in 2013 and Callahan departed in a key deadline trade with Tampa Bay in 2014 for Martin St. Louis, who helped spark the Rangers’ run to the finals.
Girardi himself was on the verge of departing in a trade during that season with his contract set to expire. The Rangers became more skill-based and less black and blue as they searched for the right combination to bring home another Cup. Other leaders began to emerge as the club regularly made the playoffs, overcoming the constraints of the salary cap.
Girardi, though, remained a part of the formula by signing a six-year, $33 million extension even as it became more and more clear that he was a link to an increasingly distant past. The alternate captain played hurt — sometimes more seriously than he let on. He played through his struggles, perhaps none more revealing than his ineffectiveness against Los Angeles in the Cup final in 2014. He played through the advent of new-age statistics that labeled him an ineffective player, manning the right side for better or worse season after season, leading the way in instinctively laying out to block the shots of Alex Ovechkin and Shea Weber and PK Subban and others who drove the puck harder than almost anyone in history. He played against ever faster and more skilled players as the European influence on the NHL continued its steady march forward.
Eventually, his determination and commitment couldn’t overcome that last part. Or a body for which the bill of playing the way he did finally came due. What Rangers fans didn’t like to talk or even think about finally had to be accepted with the buyout — the modern game had officially passed Girardi by, even if had probably actually happened a season or two ago.
— Garden of Dreams (@gardenofdreams) June 15, 2017
Never recording more than 31 points in a season, he was a plus-44 over his final four seasons.
“I would like to thank Dan for everything he has given of himself to the Rangers over 11 seasons,” general manager Jeff Gorton said in a statement announcing Girardi’s departure. “He has been one of the key contributors to our success over the past decade. We have the utmost respect for Dan and wish him all the best going forward.”
His antithesis-of-flashy game is the kind any hockey fan would appreciate – and certainly did for many years. Every successful team used to have a Girardi, a lunchpail defenseman that was hardly the most talented guy on the ice but who went to battle every night, going nose-to-nose with bigger and stronger forwards and often frustrating them with his effort and relentles-compete level.
The accountable underdog whose commitment to his team and job, rather than his otherwordly talent, was something so many fans could relate to – not to mention the all-world goalie that had perhaps the best seat in the house to watch Girardi.
“For 11 years you have left everything you had in front of me. The way you competed and paid the price night in and night out inspired me more than you know,” Lundqvist said on his official Twitter feed. “Will miss you on and off the ice. To me you are the definition of a warrior and I will ALWAYS appreciate what you have done for me and our team over the years. Thank you G!!!”
And still, the new NHL steadily took hold. Everyone rooted for Girardi to hold on, to overcome the unprecedented speed of the game the way he had managed to overcome all the other obstacles to forge an unlikely career.
In the end, he couldn’t — just as so many players like him have been unable to in the past 5-10 years.
Today’s standard on the blue line is Ottawa’s smooth-skating, uber-talented Erik Karlsson. Nashville just made it to the finals with what’s probably the most mobile defense in the league, with Subban and Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm pushing the pace and moving the puck quickly, all but forwards at the back end.
It’s a new world, one in which the “defensive defenseman” who intimidates and hits and “stays at home” to clear out the crease has become all but extinct. Watching Girardi the last few seasons could be compared to the final seasons of the helmet-less Craig MacTavish in the early 1990s, the last link to a bygone but now fondly remembered time in the NHL.
This change is no less seismic. Girardi represents one of the last of a breed of player that, like MacTavish, will occupy a special place in hockey lore. The opportunity to actually observe the conclusion is a bittersweet one.
Girardi bridged the eras and might have been a dinosaur by the end. Here’s betting, though, that Madison Square Garden will be dotted by plenty of No. 5 jerseys for the foreseeable future – the way Thurman Munson’s No. 15 still appears at Yankee Stadium, worn by people who never saw him play.
There’s no reason to feel badly for this all-time Ranger, who will make more than $13 million over the next six years under the terms of the buyout. And, to be sure, the new style of play in the NHL is exciting and fast and fan-friendly. Great players showcasing their skills and carrying the league in an extremely watchable era.
Still, in a time of flash and self-promotion and self-importance in sports as well as society, we can only hope the way Girardi not only played but how he carried himself and what he prioritized on the ice is at the very least remembered and appreciated, even if rarely duplicated anymore.
“I poured my heart and soul into this team for the past 11 seasons and I enjoyed every minute of it,” Girardi said in a statement after his departure.
Coming from someone like him, there can be no doubt.