Dan Girardi has spent the past 11 years and skated in more than 900 total games as a New York Ranger, but come next season, he’ll be pulling on a different jersey for the first time in his NHL career.
On Wednesday afternoon, hours before the league’s buyout window officially opened, the Rangers announced their intention to buy out Girardi, 33, and axe the remaining three years of his six-year, $33-million contract. Following the announcement, Girardi released a statement on the Blueshirts’ website, thanking the organization and the fans for their support over the past 11 years and acknowledging that New York has become a second home for the native of Welland, Ont.
“I poured my heart and soul into this team for the past 11 seasons and I enjoyed every minute of it,” Girardi said. “I want to acknowledge that the Rangers are a first-class organization who have always treated our players in a first-class fashion. My family and I are most grateful for the way we have been treated during our stay in New York.”
That Girardi sees himself bought out after the 2016-17 campaign isn’t incredibly surprising, and the writing was on the wall for the veteran rearguard for much of the season. Girardi’s ice time has decreased every single season since 2011-12, when he finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting, and hit the lowest point of his career since his rookie year when he skated just 19:06 per game for the Rangers this season. This past campaign also marked one of the least productive years of his career, too. Girardi managed only four goals and 15 points in 63 games. It was his lowest full-season point total ever.
The buyout goes beyond Girardi’s production, though. His aforementioned contract had become a sore thumb in New York, where cap space was hard to come by and too much money was locked up in underperforming players, Girardi included. By buying out the blueliner, the Rangers are set to save nearly $2.9 million this coming season, money which can be spent to improve the back end, and will get roughly $1.9 million in extra wiggle room in each of the next two seasons. However, the term remaining on the contract will result in $1.1 million cap hits from 2020-21 to 2022-23, a period during which Girardi’s contract would have been up.
One likely scenario with the cap savings sees the Rangers chase after defenseman Brendan Smith, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings, and lock up the free agent-to-be to a new deal. He performed well after coming over to New York, posting one goal and four points in 18 regular season games and adding four helpers in 12 playoff outings. The extra cap space could also give the Rangers additional freedom to chase a key free agent in the off-season and lock up restricted free agents Mika Zibanejad, Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg to new contracts, depending on which players remain with the club through expansion.
As for Girardi, it’s now a matter of what’s next for the blueliner. Still in his early 30s, there’s little doubt he can still contribute in the NHL and there will be big-league suitors for Girardi. He’s not going to earn himself another deal worth $5.5 million per season, of course, but it seems likely he finds a new place to play.
With that in mind, where does Girardi end up?
The only place the Avalanche don’t need help after an absolutely abysmal season is between the pipes, and after Thursday’s buyout of 37-year-old Francois Beauchemin, the defense is missing yet another piece. The pro in signing Girardi is that he would bring an element the team doesn’t currently have, which is that of a physical defender who can be utilized specifically in penalty-killing situations. That is Girardi’s forte at this point in his career.
That said, in an ideal situation, any team bringing Girardi in would be able to start the veteran shot-blocking specialist on the third pair and see how he fits into the roster, but the Avalanche wouldn’t have that luxury. Instead, Colorado bringing Girardi aboard would most likely mean he comes in as a second-pairing guy. For what it’s worth, that’s what he was on a Rangers team that made the playoffs, but New York also had a rather clear defensive weakness this past season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
A reunion with John Tortorella, perhaps?
It might not sound like the best move for a franchise that seems to be on the rise, but Columbus faces the prospect of losing a rearguard in the expansion draft and, even if they don’t, the Blue Jackets will need to fill their third pairing. A veteran such as Girardi, who knows Tortorella’s system and understands what the coach demands of his players, could be a nice fit for a limited role with the club.
It might be a long shot, though. First of all, the Blue Jackets may want to see what they have for up-and-coming defensemen before going out and acquiring someone like Girardi. Markus Nutivaara, Scott Harrington and Gabriel Carlsson are all options to crack the big club next season. And beyond that, there’s a matter of money that could make Girardi-to-Columbus impossible. As of Thursday, the Blue Jackets have little more than $2 million in cap space. That means any signing is going to have to be just right for both sides, and when you consider Columbus still needs to ink one or both of Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg, it’s hard to see where the Blue Jackets find the space to sign any free agents.
After the signing of Ben Bishop, Stars GM Jim Nill has to shift his focus to bulking up Dallas’ defense corps. More than anything, it seems what the Stars could use is a veteran piece to go along with the youth they boast on the back end to really help solidify one of the league’s shakier bluelines. And under coach Ken Hitchcock, it sure seems like Girardi, used as a penalty-killing specialist and on the back half of the defense, could fit the bill.
With John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis, Greg Pateryn and Stephen Johns locked up, as well as deals potentially on the way for Esa Lindell, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth, a pure, no-nonsense, stay-at-home defender could be just the thing to help plug the holes defensively. Some have tried to connect the Stars and the Vancouver Canucks in talk about a potential deal for Chris Tanev, but if Dallas can’t land Tanev and miss out on other defensive free agents, it would make sense to kick the tires on Girardi.
New Jersey Devils
Offensively, the Devils aren’t in an outright awful position. Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and a veteran Mike Cammalleri are all players who can put points on the board. That’s not to mention the potential for Nolan Patrick to join New Jersey next season, as it’s the Devils who hold the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft. But defensively, New Jersey could really use some work.
However, unlike Colorado, where Girardi might start higher up, the Devils may actually be able to realistically use the veteran lower down the depth chart. They have enough defensemen to man their top four and still keep Girardi on the third pairing, but it would take some mixing and matching for coach John Hynes to find his optimal duos.
The move would work for Girardi, too. It’s not as if he’d have to pack up and move — it’s about 40-minute trek from Madison Square Garden to Prudential Center — and there’s no doubt he’d be able to slot into the lineup every single night, likely paired alongside a youngster such as Damon Severson or Jon Merrill.
Vegas Golden Knights
As with any player looking for a home this off-season, the Golden Knights have potential to be in the mix. And the thing about the upstart Vegas club chasing after and landing Girardi is that it would give the defense a veteran leader. With the breadth of young defensemen who are set to become available to the Golden Knights, bringing in someone like Girardi to help guide some of the younger players wouldn’t be the worst move.
Not to keep harping on Girardi’s strong suits, but he would also bring to Vegas the one thing they’re unlikely to get through the draft, and that’s a veteran defensive defenseman who can play penalty-killing minutes and has next to no fear of getting down and blocking a shot. Of the defensemen who are likely to be drafted by the Golden Knights, there aren’t many who fit that bill. Girardi doesn’t have to play big minutes to be worth the signing in Vegas.
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