In the couple months that I’ve been on board here, I’ve written a non-trivial amount about how much I dislike the fact that Dan Girardi is a first-pair defenseman on a long-term, big-money deal for the Rangers. He stinks on the PK, doesn’t produce on the power play, and seems to be a boat anchor on virtually every teammate with whom he’s played major minutes at even strength. Many have wondered why in the world Sather gave Girardi a huge contract extension when he could have had Anton Stralman, arguably a much better defenseman, for similar, if not less, money.
However, I wanted to dig a little deeper to see if my disdain for Girardi was justifiable. After all, he does play the toughest minutes on the team, not to mention some of the toughest in the NHL. So, I set out to find a list of defenseman with comparable or tougher usage. I looked at the last three seasons and filtered out any defensemen who had a TOI%-weighted quality of competition less than one percentage point below Girardi’s value of 29.84%*. I then removed any defensemen with an offensive zone start% of greater than or equal to 50%. Girardi is at 46.24% in the last three seasons, and a few percentage points in zone starts doesn’t make much of a difference, so simply filtering out anyone who has more offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts is adequate. I also set a minimum 5v5 TOI of 1500 minutes. This gave me a list of 42 defensemen, including Girardi. Some of the names are the ones you’d expect (Chara, Subban, Hedman), while some others are quite a bit less heralded (Hejda, Weaver, Hainsey). These are the guys whose usage is most similar to Girardi’s; they’re the players that their coaches trust to shut down the opposition’s best players. If we want to truly judge his performance, we should compare him to this group.
*Note: I didn’t include quality of teammates in my analysis, because Girardi has one of the very highest TOI%-weighted quality of teammates in the league. Since I wanted to look at defenseman who had usage that was equal to or tougher than Girardi’s, I didn’t have to exclude anyone on the basis of having a QoT that as too high. However, in most analyses, QoT is actually the most important factor to consider in usage.
I pulled all available stats for my group of defensemen from WAR On Ice, and also picked up some Fenwick stats from Puckalytics. The three areas I wanted to focus on were goal ratio, possession, and shot suppression, as those are probably the most important aspects of a defenseman’s game at even strength. Ideally, your big-minute defenseman will keep pucks away from your goalie and be able to contribute to keeping pucks moving towards the other team’s net. If you’re interested in seeing the full dataset, I’ve made it publicly available right here. However, if you don’t feel like sorting through hundreds of cells’ worth of data, I’ve summarized the pertinent information below:
If you look at just the raw counting and percentage stats, Girardi doesn’t look so bad. However, he’s had the benefit of playing for what has been a very good possession team in two of the last three seasons. Those numbers are going to look better for him than they would if he was playing on a bad possession team like Toronto or Colorado. The relative stats, I think, tell the real story. He’s in the bottom half of the pack in terms of relative Fenwick, shot suppression (shown here as FA60RelTM), and is very near to the bottom in relative goal ratio. Compared to guys with similar usage, Girardi isn’t very impressive. In fact, he looks mediocre in the areas where we would expect a guy who has gained a high level of trust from two coaches to succeed. All things considered, I think it’s fair to say that Girardi isn’t a very good shutdown defenseman.
Despite this, his cap hit of $5.5M ranks fourth among his comparables, and 18th for all NHL defensemen. I can understand the Rangers not wanting to let Girardi walk away for nothing, but to make him one of the twenty highest paid defensemen in the league was absolute madness. Sure, he would have made at least that much on the open market, but that doesn’t mean that the Rangers were forced to give him that contract. There are clearly other defensemen out there who can perform better in Girardi’s role. They had one on the roster last season and let him leave for free agency without a serious offer! Signing Girardi for six more years at a hefty salary showed a fundamental lack of understanding about what constitutes a good first-pairing defenseman by Sather and the rest of management.
As bad as the contract looks now, it is only going to get worse as Girardi ages. Unfortunately, the Rangers will probably have to see this one until the bitter end. On top of that, Ryan McDonagh, who should be a superstar, is going to be saddled with Girardi on his right flank for the foreseeable future. The captain may be the biggest victim in all of this, unable to play to his peak because he’s covering up for the shortcomings of his partner. What a shame. At this point, all we can do is look on the bright side: at least we’re not playing McIlrath 25 minutes a night.