In the absence of Marc Staal, the New York Rangers have counted on defenseman Dan Girardi to step up and take the reigns on defense - through two games he has done just that. Along with Ryan McDonagh, he's risen to the challenge of playing a hefty number of minutes per game and hasn't complained about it once. The Rangers may have lost both of their games to this point, but despite that, Girardi has still been a star on the Blueshirt blue-line.
Over the course of last season, more so than ever, Girardi established himself on this team. Remember, when head coach John Tortorella was firsthired in 2009, Girardi was nowhere near the top of his defensive depth chart by any means. That's obviously changed since then and Girardi's steady play in his own zone and slowly-developing contributions offensively have helped with that as well.
When paired with Staalsy, Girardi is his absolute best. I said many times last year that they were possibly the greatest shutdown pairing in the National Hockey League. So without Staal, it's like half of Girardi is missing. But what we've seen in the last two games is that Girardi has the ability to be a standout on his own, and lead the team defensively on his own.
As of Sunday, Girardi led the entire league in shifts per game. And even though he has been on the ice for more shifts than anyone on the club, he still has maintained an even plus/minus rating. Now some people do not put a lot of stock in the plus/minus statistic, but I think in this case, with a defenseman anyway, it makes sense to.
Seriously, though, what can you say bad about the guy through two games? He blocks shots, he hits (something he's gotten quite good at), he's always extra protective of Henrik Lundqvist, and he is having a tremendous impact on the younger players. I remember last year when Ryan McDongh said he learned so much from watching Staal and Girardi in action. Imagine how much he is learning now as Girardi's partner?
Once Staal returns -- whenever that is -- Girardi's minutes will no doubt calm down, especially since we will be deeper into the season and the coaching staff will gain trust in other players...
"It's not ideal," Tortorella told the Daily News about Girardi playing so many minutes. "He's ready to do it. He can do it. ... But I think those minutes will calm down as we get into the swing of the season."
The thing is, the only other players that Tortorella can trust on D besides Girardi and McDonagh are Michael Sauer and to an extent, Steve Eminger. Del Zotto's been way too inconsistent, Tim Erixon is only a rookie still learning the game at the NHL level and Jeff Woywitka has yet to play a game in the Ranger sweater.
That is essentially why Girardi has received so many minutes out on the ice, and Torts has been criticized for putting Dan in that position, but he really has no other choice. It may be early in the season, but these games count and Tortorella wants to win. For reasons I spoke of throughout this article, Girardi gives them the Blueshirts their best shot.