As the New York Rangers have righted their ship this season, at least defensively, attention has turned to players who may still be lagging. Conjecture abounds regarding Michael Del Zotto being shopped around, while Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Anton Stralman, and John Moore seem part of the core Untouchables, fighting the crimes of the opposition, on a consistent basis.
With Dan Girardi peering at free agency next season, rumblings have begun about his play and future with the team. Some perspectives explain that Girardi is having the most trouble adjusting to the new system, given that he is used to thinking defense first, going down regularly to block shots and passes. Compounding this is the idea that the opposition, knowing he is going to sacrifice his boots and legs, (anti-bootlegger?) wait for him to go down and then go around him. Others wonder if he has lost a half step at the ripe young age of 29.
What I see is unusually poor decision making from Girardi, particularly when it comes to the breakout pass. Too often while making the instant decision to move the puck, he either fails to get it out of the defensive zone, or his pass is intercepted outright. It almost seems as if he has stopped thinking out there. While such plays are best made instinctually, being smart has to be part of the equation.
That hockey is so much a mental game is often missed. Players must be confident, have a high hockey “IQ,” making smart decisions at every turn. Others on the team seem loaded with talent, Benoit Pouliot is a prime example. Yet, he falters by making ill conceived and ill timed decisions with the puck. The magical turnaround of Chris Kreider, a player brimming with talent, has analysts baffled. It is clear that getting his mental game together has been the difference. He is confident, and consistently making the right choices, “playing the right way” as coach Vigneault likes to say.
Last season Brad Richards was questioned largely on physical terms. Now that he has gotten his mental sky in order, no one believes he, at 33, has lost a step. Girardi is in his prime. He will have to go back to thinking a bit more, having his decisions become more naturally correct as a result. The Rangers need him, his physical presence, and effective passing. He’s on the defensive only in his head.