Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were the cornerstones of a stingy New York Ranger defense a few years back. Under the tutelage of head coach John Tortorella, the two defensemen thrived as stay-at-home, shot-blocking defensemen, establishing the Rangers as a perennial defensive team in front of Henrik Lundqvist. In 2014 and 2015, the Rangers felt compelled to sign them to long-term, lucrative contracts to keep their defensive core strong for years to come. However, this decision has actually handicapped the Rangers from adapting to a new era of NHL hockey.
The NHL has become a much faster game in recent years. The current Stanley Cup champions can vouch for that. The Rangers were ousted in five games in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it wasn’t even a competitive series. The Rangers had no answer for the speedy Penguins, a term once coined for the Blueshirts not too long ago.
Parting ways with John Tortorella’s defensive style and buying in to Alain Vigneault’s up-tempo, offensive style paid huge dividends for the Rangers almost immediately back in 2013. This occurred roughly around the time Staal and Girardi signed their contracts, and now the Rangers are paying the price. Due to the heavy contracts Staal and Girardi possess, the Rangers saw both Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle, two very gifted puck moving defensemen who thrived under the Vigneault system, depart.
Staal and Girardi have no offensive up-side whatsoever, and their defensive game has diminished considerably. Marc Staal has become a shell of himself since dealing with his injuries, and Girardi is no more reliable than any 2nd line defenseman. They aren’t strong skaters and haven’t been that “shutdown” pair Ranger fans have become accustomed to. With Staal’s yearly cap hit of $5.7 million through 2020-21 and Girardi’s yearly cap hit of $5.5 million through 2019-20, the Rangers are suffocating to keep players in.
Jeff Gorton knows this, and he was actively trying to move Girardi’s contract this past draft, being unsuccessful in doing so. And to be fair to him, this won’t be an easy task. The best chance they had was the upcoming expansion draft but they each have clauses in their contracts which exempts them from being chosen, unless Gorton can convince one of them to lift said clause. But no one really wants to take on those contracts for two aging defensemen who have seen their best years come and go.
The Rangers don’t need them to be offensively gifted defensemen in terms of point production (although 2 goals each last year isn’t helping anyone), but they need to be better at transition. They need to be able to make those difficult breakout passes on a consistent basis, not once every 7 or 8 games. Transition separates the good teams from the bad in this league. The Tampa Bay Lightning has flourished the last couple years with their transition. The Chicago Blackhawks have made a living by moving the puck from defense to offense incredibly fast the past 7 years, grabbing 3 Cups in that span.
Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have been loyal soldiers for the New York Rangers their entire careers. They have been loved by Ranger fans everywhere. It’s unfortunate, but the team is trying to move forward quickly, while Staal and Girardi are trying desperately to keep up. The Rangers are going to have to make do for now, but Gorton will have to try his best to move one of them out in order for the Rangers to fully advance on the defensive end.