Dan Girardi

Dan Girardi is a defenseman with the New York Rangers. During the 2011-12 regular season he played 2,152:20 at the NHL level, the second-most of any player in the league.

Girardi spent his junior career in the OHL, and was eligible for the 2003 NHL Entry Draft – one of the deepest drafts in history. Girardi, with 30 points in 67 games played between Barrie and Guelph, wasn’t selected. He wasn’t selected the next year, either.

In January of 2005, Girardi was dealt to the London Knights by Guelph. He was an overage defenseman and recognized as one of the best blue-liners in the league. Dave Barr, Guelph’s coach and G.M., commented at the time that he’d fielded several offers but the Knights offered the best long-term value. He also talked about how he “hated” to lose Girardi and that it was unthinkable that the defender was undrafted and unsigned by an NHL club.

Girardi won a Memorial Cup with a stacked London team that year, beating out Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic. Girardi and defenseive partner Marc Methot were tasked with checking Crosby in the final game, a shutout win for London.

Girardi turned pro the next year, getting a contract with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL. He didn’t make the team out of training camp and was assigned to the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers. In seven games with the Checkers (a team that would finish the year minus-22), Girardi picked up five points and a plus-5 rating. He was called up to replace injured defenseman Joe Rullier, and never looked back, picking up 39 points and recording a plus-14 rating in his first AHL season.

That was enough to wake up the New York Rangers. On July 1, 2006, the team signed him to his first NHL contract. He didn’t make the team out of training camp, but was called up midseason. He’s played in 462 of 464 games since then, missing two to a rib injury but otherwise never leaving the lineup. He’s improved each and every year, gradually sucking up more minutes and more responsibility. Along the way, his coach even learned that his first name was “Dan” and not “Joe.”

He hits. He blocks shots. He contributes offensively. He’s disciplined too – on more than 200 hits, he’s picked up just 20 penalty minutes this season. He leads the New York Rangers – the Eastern Conference champions, a team that finished two points back of the President’s Trophy – in ice-time and quality of competition. He does all this while starting far more than half of his shifts in the defensive zone.

In short, Dan Girardi’s a high quality defenseman and he came out of nowhere.

The Oilers are a team with some interesting defensive players in the system, players who didn’t garner any headlines at the draft but who look like they might just have some long-term potential at the NHL level. Taylor Fedun, the undrafted college player who was the story of training camp this past fall, is one name that comes to mind. Jeremie Blain was a fourth round pick in 2010; Brandon Davidson was selected later after going undrafted in 2009. Both have delivered quality offensive seasons in major junior. Kyle Bigos (seen above) is a physical monster at Merrimack and gets less press than virtually every other defenseman in the system.

At his last press conference, Steve Tambellini talked about having “four, maybe five” talented defensemen who hadn’t yet made the jump to pro. By my count, the Oilers have eight defensemen in the system who haven’t yet played their first professional season. There is a lot on the way and only so many minutes available in the AHL; naturally the Oilers will prioritize the development of more blue chip prospects – guys like Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin, David Musil, and Martin Gernat.

The odds for any of the lower-tier defensemen on an individual level aren’t good. For every Dan Girardi there are at least a dozen like his 2005-06 teammates Rory Rawlyk and Jake Taylor: guys who got enough interest to earn a shot in an NHL system but were never able to take the next step. Every so often, though, there’s a gem like Girardi who sneaks through the cracks and ends up outperforming the more highly-touted guys in the system. Oilers fans saw Kyle Brodziak, once undrafted, then later a late pick, pass Rob Schremp on the farm and go on to a quality NHL career. That’s why guys like Fedun, Blain, Davidson and Bigos are fun to follow – there’s a lot working against them, but there’s enough in each case that we might be surprised when they start playing games at the professional level.

  • Mark Giordano has a similar story, although he never spent any time on the ECHL.

    He led the Owen Sound Attack in scoring from the blueline for two straight years, but wasn’t touched in the draft. Then he made the Flames after leading the entire Omaha Knights in scoring one year.

  • RexLibris

    First, I hope that Tambellini referring to four or five defensive prospects is just another case of his habit of understatement.

    I have taken a look at the players that need to be signed and playing in OKC next year in order to retain all their rights and allow more time for development and separation between the players.

    I think I have this right in that Marincin, Bunz, Blain, Davidson, Rieder, Czerwonka and Pelss are all ready or at least able to move to the AHL. Also, I believe that Pelss is among a few of those who will need contracts by June 1st or they will re-enter the draft.

    I haven’t heard anything about any of the prospects playing hardball similar to Tim Erixon or Riley Nash in previous years and thus forcing the team’s hand.

    So, based on those names and the assumption of good faith bargaining that means that the Oilers need to clear at least seven spaces on their 50-man reserve list. The names that I could find that seemed most likely to be moved or allowed to expire were Josh Green, Milan Kytnar, Bryan Rodney, Ryan Keller, Cam Barker, Darcy Hordichuk (UFA), Linus Omark (trade), and Theo Peckham (trade).

    I have read and heard from several sources (Stauffer, 1260, ON) that the Oilers will likely send Klefbom back to the SEL for one more season. Marincin and Bunz have already been assigned to the OKC team. Davidson and Blain I have less information on, but I think they are eligible to move to the AHL. Tobias Rieder, I believe, has one more year of junior eligibility and it is possible that Czerwonka could return to junior after an injury-plagued season.

    The Oilers need to make decisions on a few of their farm players this summer and begin the process of graduating the draft class of 2010 into the AHL while signing the other prospects of that same year to retain their rights. Once that group is firmly entrenched in the team’s professional development stage (AHL, ECHL, NHL-callups) then Tambellini can begin to trade away picks occasionally for complementary players.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I think there may be a Girardi in this cluster of defencemen somewhere, but my fear is that the Oilers will be so wedded to their current contract list he could already be drafted and yet still slip through their fingers.

      • RexLibris

        Not sure as I never saw him live, but looking over his stats he’s big, was +26, improved his ppg pace over last season, and had 83 PIMs over 69 games (not that PIMs tell a great story, as they could just as easily be bone-headed plays as strong, tough, goal-saving penalties).

        Marincin, by comparison was a -7 on the season split between the Prince George Cougars and the Pats, had 40 points over 58 games and had 35 PIMs. His play after his trade didn’t seem to pick up at all, but a trade from a small centre to another small-ish centre on an already culture-shocked young man can have that effect. I think there is a player here, and a good one at that, but he needs time and I have to wonder if we might not eventually whisper his name in the same breath as Boris Mironov. Who knows.

        To my mind, Davidson looks like the more solid defensively at this stage and may transition well to the AHL. He may not ever exceed Plante, but he also may become a solid 2nd or 3rd pairing shutdown guy (a la Smid). We won’t know if we don’t sign and develop him and give him the best chance to achieve his potential.

      • RexLibris

        That was sort of my guess. Tambellini wouldn’t tell most people the flavour of gum he was chewing, nevermind start talking openly about his prospect ranking and plans so I just had to assume that he was being conservative.

        My concern is that this summer may require management to make some roster decisions in short order and that hasn’t always been one of Tambellini’s strengths.

  • RexLibris

    Goes to show that drafting is not a science, just a little math with a whole bunch of art mixed in.

    JW, do the Oilers have a full-time scout at the college level? It seems to me there are some decent players who go largely unnoticed just because they chose the college route.

    • RexLibris

      Yeah, Pelss is a forward. I’ve been watching him for two years now, at first curious and then with admiration.

      I really like this young player and even if he never becomes more than an AHLer, as a 7th round pick he’d still outperform a lot of the Flames past 1st round picks (okay, even some of ours too).

      He’s aggressive on the forecheck, hits well, skates like a beast, and has a really deceptive shot. He tends to go to the front of the net and plays well down low. He was also captain of his WJC Latvia team. What’s not to like?

      My overall point was that if the Oilers don’t clear some contract space they could lose out on him at this year’s draft. And I have to think that the compensation for a 7th round pick is pretty close to nil. I expect he’ll probably sign either when the Oil Kings are eliminated or, if they should win the Memorial Cup, after.

  • RexLibris

    Still to this day I think Bigos will surprise people once he is in a league that we can follow more closely. He’s not going to be a Girardi but I think he can have a career simuliar to a Rome, Hnidy, or maybe even Sutton. He wont impress a single simple minded hockey fan, but for the ones that notice detail and simple defensive plays he could be very good.

    I dont think Davidson is going to be signed, from what I saw at the rookie tournament and drills he wasn’t very good.

  • RexLibris

    Also of note, I believe Chorney and Plante’s contracts are up this year as well. With all the young talented players that should be jumping to the pro ranks this year there should be no reason to re-sign either of these guys. There are some Vets in OKC and they badly need to start developing high end defensive products and lets face it, Chorney and Plante are not them.

    I think Tambo needs to create some space on the NHL roster as well. I don’t see Harti spending another season in OKC and I would be fine with having Van de Velde as our 4 C next year.

  • slopitch

    JW, it makes sense to package 2 or 3 players for a stud dman then bring in the rest 1 at a time after proving themselves in the AHL no? I like how they handled Petry but he’s older then most of these guys.