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.