I've never seen a player go from so loved, to so questioned as quickly as I have Dan Girardi. When Girardi signed his 6 year, $5.5m AAV contract in the midst of last season, the general consensus was that the Rangers just signed their warrior defenseman, and they were keeping him for good.
Cue possession metrics explosion onto the NHL scene.
Now many believe that the Rangers have this albatross contract on their books at least until Girardi's NMC runs out after the 2016-2017 season and becomes a modified NTC.
I do not believe this.
What I do believe is that Dan Girardi is one of the most abused defenseman in the NHL in terms of player usage, and his usage is completely destroying any chance Girardi has at being one of these 'sexy' advanced stats defensemen like Sekera, Petry, and of course, Anton Stralman.
Let's take a quick look at a usage chart for these four defensemen from last season:
If you are not familiar with usage charts, what we have here are four variables. X-axis is your zone starts relative to your teammates - the lower the number, the more defensive zone starts that player receives. Y-axis is your Time On Ice Competition %. This is a War-On-Ice generated figure. Competition in hockey is very fluid, so you will find a small range between the 'easiest' competition and 'hardest' competition. Competition remains relative, and Girardi certainly leads the pack here. The color variable is the players' relative Corsi to their teammates. And finally, the size of the bubble is Time On Ice per game, 5v5.
In a nutshell, usage difficulty ranges from hardest (top-left) to easiest (bottom-right).
Girardi is no stranger to being in the top-left. Here is the same chart, but instead of limiting to four players, we'll open it up to all defensemen who skated more than 350 minutes at 5v5 this season:
Pretty easy to pick Girardi out of that pile. It is a pile of players however, so yes, there are definitely defensemen who were used this season similarly to Girardi. What about over a few years? What if we combine player usage for the past three seasons into one bubble per player, where does Girardi line up then? (bumping minimum TOI to 1000 minutes)
Girardi is one of two bubbles there in the top left, just under Zdeno Chara, you know, the future Hall of Famer...
In terms of raw numbers over the past three seasons combined, only one defensemen has received harder zone starts relative to his teammates than Dan Girardi; Nate Prosser. In that time frame, Prosser has played 76 fewer games than Girardi, and logged over 6 minutes less a game than Girardi does at 5v5.
When looking at raw numbers for TOIC%, Girardi comes in with the fourth toughest competition faced. His peers on this metric include Phaneuf, Chara, Kronwall, Giordano, Hjalmarsson, Ericsson, Michalek, Weber, and McDonagh. These are high-quality defensive names we see here with Girardi.
Now, you don't see names here that include the NHL's elite defensemen like Keith, Doughty, Subban, and Karlsson. Why? Well, starting them too often in the defensive zone would be a waste of their talent. And this is where the player usage argument lives. This season, Girardi's d-zone starts were so excaserbated due to the addition of Dan Boyle on the Rangers blueline. Starting Dan Boyle too often in the defensive zone would be a waste of what Dan Boyle was brought to the Rangers to do, lead offense. Alain Vigneault wasn't shy with this, giving Dan Boyle the 2nd easiest relative Zone Starts in the NHL this season. This has led to a fundamental problem for the New York Rangers.
Let's compare the defensemen usage chart from this season. First the Chicago Blackhawks, then the Tampa Bay Lightning, and finally the New York Rangers (200 minute TOI filter).
Coach Q's usage was pretty evenly spread (outside of David Rundblad and Hjalmarsson) in terms of zone start usage. He seemed to have a very set plan in using certain defensemen against tougher competition. The main takeaway here though is the zone start allocation.
This to me is picture perfect defensive allocation. Cooper keeps most of his players in the -5 to +5 noise area we discussed in my last post, except for Victor Hedman, who he basically gives the keys to the Cadillac and (rightfully so) let's him hit the ice and do what he wants.
You could drive a tank through that discrepancy between the Rangers top-4 defensemen, and the players that filled out the bottom pairing over the course of the year. You have McDonagh at -7.4, and the next player on the relative Zone Start list is Matt Hunwick at +13.51. What usage like this does is absolutely strain the players who are getting the tougher assignments and seriously alter their metrics.
Compare this year's player usage chart to last year's for Rangers defensemen.
What's the difference? Well, Stralman. The Rangers, Ulf and AV, tried to give Kevin Klein the minutes that Stralman was eating last season, and he didn't hang as well as Stralman did. But even bigger than that is that Stralman made Staal a better player (not vice-versa, sorry all). Further, a defensemen like Stralman could take some of those tougher minutes from Girardi.
You add one player who can eat minutes, you alleviate minutes from the other pairing, you increase the effectiveness of three players by adding one; or in this case, you decrease the effectiveness of three players by removing one.
Dan Girardi is not the elite shutdown defenseman that the Rangers are using him as. He is not Chara. He is not Giordano, or Weber, or McDonagh. He is Girardi. In my eyes, Girardi is a mid-pairing defensemen whose entire career has been spent as an elite shutdown #1. And this is no slight to G, who has performed admirably in front of Henrik Lundqvist, but specifically for his metrics, he is better served as a #3/4 defenseman.
There are metrics out there that do attempt to adjust player stats for variables like zone starts, competition, etc... but I believe these metrics do not do justice to the outliers (outlined in the prior post). There is too much noise in the middle of the pack for players who receive -5 to +5 relative Zone Starts to get a good measure of how we should adjust the players who are outside that level on both ends of the spectrum.
Girardi has made a career out of eating the tough minutes his coaches assign him. I don't think he'd ever be a 'fancystats' superstar, but alleviating his minutes could go a long way in allowing fans to get a true look at where Girardi's metrics should be, relative to the minutes and usage he should be getting.