Dan Girardi has been bought out by the New York Rangers, but remember the Blueshirts would have been better off with Anton Stralman.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Dan Girardi is a first-class player and person who wonderfully represented the New York Rangers off the ice and brought a level of commitment on it that helped define a special time in franchise history. It would be next to impossible to find any fan who wasn’t sad to see him go when the team bought out the remaining three years of his contract last week.
Sometimes, though, the truth isn’t easy. This is one of those situations. And the truth is that the Rangers chose the wrong defenseman to re-sign back in 2014.
With the free-agency period set to begin a week from now, the hard facts are that the Rangers’ need to rebuild their defense corps might not be so dire had they gone with Anton Stralman over Girardi three years ago.
Let’s review: With Girardi set to become a free agent after the 2013-14 season, then-general manager Glen Sather played hardball prior to the trade deadline, making it clear that he would move impending free agents that wouldn’t sign extensions rather than lose them for nothing in the offseason. Girardi, a clear target of that message, agreed on a six-year, $33 million deal with the Rangers on Feb. 28, 2014. Sather proved he wasn’t bluffing less than a week later, sending captain Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay as part of a trade for Martin St. Louis with Callahan’s contract also set to expire.
The GM got what he wanted out of Girardi then, but time has shown he might have been better off trading both players.
Fearing a present and future cap crunch, the team believed it wouldn’t be able to sign Girardi as well as Stralman, who was picked up by the Rangers in a seemingly minor one-year signing after the 2010-11 season before he re-upped with the club for two years after the next season. Stralman, however, proved to be anything but a minor addition, and by the 2013-14 season, had developed into what the increasingly more relevant enhanced statistics said was one of the more efficient and effective defensemen in the NHL.
The difference between the two right-handed blueliners was apparent in the 2014 playoffs during the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. Paired with Marc Staal, Stralman opened eyes with his often-dominant performance, frequently matching up against Sidney Crosby’s line as New York rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the second round. Stralman’s puck-moving abilities, impeccable positioning, and timely physical play significantly raised his profile around the league.
Contrast that with Girardi, who struggled against the Los Angeles’ faster forwards in the final and made several key errors with the puck – the biggest being an ugly giveaway in overtime of Game 1 that resulted in the Kings’ winning goal. It was perhaps the first sign that Girardi was destined to struggle against the faster and faster new NHL that was taking hold.
Unfortunately, it was too late for Sather to consider allowing Girardi to walk, or as a result that was at least in team management’s mind, meet the price of Stralman, himself a free agent after that season. The Rangers first offered a reported $9 million over three years during the season, which Stralman rejected, then reportedly about $4 million per season over three or four years.
The Swede went on to sign a five-year contract worth $22 million with the Lightning – about $500,000 more per year than the Rangers’ offer – and wasn’t necessarily happy about it, venting first to a Swedish media outlet and then others that he was upset over the negotiations, or, in his mind, lack thereof, and had badly wanted to remain in New York.
“All I wanted was really to stay,” Stralman told Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun in May 2015. “I was very disappointed that they didn’t show more interest than they did.
“I really gave my heart and soul for that team for three years and I thought they could have handled it with a little more respect. I thought with them moving in another direction, that’s totally fine. It’s just a matter of communication, instead of just keeping quiet then pulling the move at 12:01 on deadline day. That was disappointing. It was tough.”
Whatever the truth regarding the situation, here’s the truth as told by the NHL’s enhanced stats Shot Attempts category, which mirrors the Corsi statistic:
Stralman’s SAT totals for last four seasons:
- 2013-14, Rangers: +318 (sixth in league among defensemen)
- 2014-15, Lightning: +279 (seventh among defensemen)
- 2015-16, Lightning: +201 (15th)
- 2016-17, Lightning: +60 (56th)
Yes, there appears to be a steady decline in those numbers, but they remain in the outstandingly positive territory, with the Rangers and then the Lightning enjoying many more shots at opponents’ nets when Stralman was on the ice. Now let’s compare Girardi’s SAT totals during that same span, leaving out his rank in order to avoid the appearance of piling on (suffice it to say, the past three years’ totals were all near the bottom of the league):
- 2013-14: -3
- 2014-15: -216
- 2015-16: -235
- 2016-17: -389
All Stralman did was go on to pair with Victor Hedman in one of the NHL’s top defensive duos as the Lightning beat the Rangers in seven games in the conference finals in 2015. Stralman, by the way, spent much of that series frustrating Rick Nash in a stark reminder of what his former team had let go.
New York decided to sign Dan Boyle for two years to replace Stralman after 2013-14, and we all remember – and want to forget – how that went.
If there’s a less flashy defenseman than the blood-and-guts Girardi, it’s Stralman, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time and makes the right play – almost like an offensive lineman who doesn’t give up sacks and, at least in the years before Pro Football Focus, didn’t get noticed for his excellence as a result. It’s clear now from the league’s own enhanced stats, though, that Stralman would have been the better investment for the Rangers.
Signed for two more seasons with the Lightning, how much better would the spectacularly steady Stralman look on the right side of the Rangers’ defense this offseason? Perhaps current GM Jeff Gorton could choose between premier free agents Brendan Smith and Kevin Shattenkirk, with Stralman’s presence making it less catastrophic if he could only land one of them.
And despite Friday’s blockbuster trade of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona that brought back young right side D-man Anthony DeAngelo and created huge amounts of cap space, the task of rebuilding the defense remains daunting. Rangers fans seem to be almost assuming that local product Shattenkirk is on his way, but he’ll have plenty of suitors willing to pay big money, as will Smith. Not signing at least one of them would seem to leave the Rangers in major trouble next season.
The decision to bring back fan favorite Girardi in 2014 can certainly be hotly debated, but the resulting failure to retain Stralman represents a serious organizational error in that the club was unable to fully comprehend the value of a critical asset. In some ways, Stralman’s departure has led the Rangers to where they are now: Starved for competent right-handed defensemen – one of the biggest commodities in the NHL – with few guaranteed avenues to acquire even one. The bill for having lost one of the best in the league after getting him for essentially nothing has come due.