Analyzing The Dan Girardi Contract

Image courtesy of Robert Kowal (CC)

On Friday, the New York Rangers announced the re-signing of top-defenseman Dan Girardi to a six year, $33m deal.  This will see Girardi earn an average of $5.5m per season, which on the surface appears to be fair value for a player many regard as one of the most under-rated defenders in the league.

Let’s take a closer look at the player, and see how his play relates to the new contract.

Never drafted, Girardi enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career in the OHL, winning the 2005 Memorial Cup as a member of the London Knights, and signed his first professional contract soon after with the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack – the Rangers’ minor league affiliate.  He was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL, playing 7 games there and notching 5 points before being recalled to Hartford where he was to spend the majority of the next two seasons.

Scoring 10 goals and 63 points in 111 AHL games and going +18, he was eventually signed to his first NHL contract during that time by the New York Rangers.  Called up in January 2007 as an injury replacement, he has not played a game in the minor leagues since and has missed just 4 NHL games due to injury in that time.  Regarded as a two-way defender, Girardi puts up consistently solid offense – generally 20-30 points per season, totalling 171 points in 550 NHL games to date – but where he particularly excels is at the defensive game.

Minutes

One way to see how valuable a player is, at least to his own team, is to examine their time on ice.  NHL coaches generally play their most trusted, reliable players more, and as such we can at least see how important Girardi is to the Rangers.  The following table displays the average minutes played per game by Girardi, in each situation, for each year he has spent in the NHL, along with his rank (among defenders) on the Rangers, and his league-wide ranking (among defenders).

Season EV PP PK TOTAL Rank on Team  Rank in League 
 2006/07  13:50 0:08 1:50 15:49  9th 180th
 2007/08  15:50 2:49 2:32 21:11 2nd 71st
 2008/09  16:47 2:18 2:26 21:31  2nd 76th
 2009/10  17:37 0:19 3:32 21:28 2nd  74th
 2010/11  19:20  2:01 3:12 24:34 2nd 14th
 2011/12 21:10  1:45 3:18 26:14 1st 4th
 2012/13  20:13 2:08 3:02 25:24  1st 8th
 2013/14  18:33 1:18 2:47 22:40  2nd  44th
  • It didn’t take Girardi long to jump from the team’s extra defenseman, to being on their top pair – less than a year in fact.  Consider that he was in the ECHL in 2005, and it’s remarkable the progress he made.
  • Part of the reason for Girardi’s jump up the depth chart from his first half season to his first full season can be attributed to the loss of Karel Rachunek, who logged 19:23 per game in 2006/07, to free agency, and injuries to Marek Malik (18:51 per game), but that only opens up a couple of second/third pairing slots, not a prime first pairing spot.  Girardi’s development curve went north in a hurry, and he clearly played beyond his years while being surrounded with good players like Michal Rozsival and Fedor Tyutin.
  • John Tortorella came on board in February 2009, replacing Tom Renney.  In Renney’s final season, the difference between his top defender in minutes per game, Rozsival, to his bottom regular defender, Paul Mara, was just 3:33 per game, indicating a very even spread of minutes and not overly relying on one pairing.  Hence, Girardi was receiving top pairing minutes on his team, but among the league he was nowhere near the top.
  • When Tortorella came on board, the spread between the top player, Marc Staal, and the bottom player, Matt Gilroy, expanded to 6:49 per game, though Girardi was battling with Rozsival for minutes on the top pairing with Staal and hence was still only 74th in the league.
  • By 2010, Girardi had clearly won that battle with the aging Rozsival, playing far more minutes on that top pairing, and the spread between Staal and Michael Sauer coming in at 8:13 per game.  Tortorella clearly prefers to rely on his top pairing a lot more than Renney did, and combined with his remarkable development into a good NHLer, resulted in Girardi making a massive leap up the league rankings.
  • This year, Alain Vigneault replaced Tortorella and Ryan McDonagh emerged as one of the league’s top defenders.  Girardi’s minutes have as such taken a small hit, and Vigneault relies slightly less on just two defenders than Tortorella did.  He’s still very much the team’s number two guy, however.

Underlying Numbers

Among the ways to quantify two-way effectiveness is to measure shot attempt differentials, namely Corsi or Fenwick.  The former utilises all shots on net, missed shots, and shots taken that are blocked, while the latter utilises just shots on net and missed shots.  These serve as a proxy for puck possession, and can indicate whether a player is driving play in the right direction (i.e. towards the opposition net) or not.

Extraskater.com is perhaps the best resource for this.  Here is Dan Girardi’s player card for his On-Ice production (5v5) since 2011:

Dan Girardi Advanced Stats  Extra Skater

  • Overall, Girardi is a very good possession player in the regular season, coming in at over 50% in each of the last three years.  He’s on the edge this season, but still breaking even which is no bad thing – his FF% relative to his team-mates however, is not pretty.  The Rangers are very slightly worse at 5v5 possession this year than last, but not a huge difference.
  • Girardi’s on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage are very much around league average, adding up to a 99.9 PDO rating indicating his numbers are very much in the realm of his true talent level (i.e. not suffering or benefiting from luck).

So possession-wise, Girardi is struggling a bit this season (by his own standards and relative to the rest of his team).  What could be effecting this?

Deployment

We’ve seen how much he’s used, we’ve seen how he’s performed playing those minutes, now let’s look at the context in which he’s played.  Robert Vollman’s Player Usage Charts are a wonderful tool for seeing how much a player starts in the offensive or defensive zone, what kind of opposition they play against, and their Corsi numbers in that situation.

Below is Girardi’s 2012/13 season.  He was playing the toughest competition on the team among defensemen, was starting less than 50% of the time in the offensive zone, and was still putting up solid Corsi numbers, indicating a strong two-way player.  We can also see that Ryan McDonagh is some kind of puck possession freak, playing slightly easier competition but with marginally tougher zonestarts, while dominating the possession game.

NYR 2013 Player Usage Charts - Hockey Abstract

Now, here is Girardi’s 2013/14 season.  His quality of competition has risen quite dramatically, and his zonestarts have gotten tougher.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, as one of the hallmarks of Vigneault’s coaching style is hard line matching and leaning heavily on specific players to do certain jobs.  His possession numbers have fallen somewhat this season, probably due in large part to this increase in responsibility (despite less minutes doing it), and it’s still not that bad (i.e. Kevin Klein bad).

NYR Player Usage Charts - Hockey Abstract

Comparables

Finally, it always pays to look at a players’ cap comparables to see how he fits in with similarly paid players.  Courtesy of Cap Geek, here are Girardi’s closest comparable defenders in terms of cap hit:

Girardi cap comparables

Girardi is earning the coin of a high-end defender, with Chris Pronger, Duncan Keith, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brent Seabrook and others representing some of the best players of their kind over the last few years.  Girardi probably doesn’t reach the heights of some of these players, but in my mind he’s very comparable to two-way minute munchers like Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Edler and Niklas Kronwall – both in terms of age and in terms of ability.

One thing worth noting is that Girardi is almost 30 years old, yet of all the defenders on this list has one of the last contracts to run its course (second only to Keith).  By the time this contract ends, Girardi will be 36, and likely past his time as a top pairing defender.  However, the cap will be significantly higher by that point in all likelihood, and $5.5m won’t be regarded as a particularly high price-point.

Age will likely start to slow Girardi down, but he’s extremely likely to remain a top pairing guy for at least the next two seasons, and top four probably for the remainder of the deal.

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