Dan Girardi’s struggles may extend Michael Del Zotto’s tenure in blue

Despite all the recent trade rumors swirling around Michael Del Zotto, the young D-man may remain a Ranger beyond this year.

I’ll spare you the argument that Del Zotto is still very young for a defenseman at just 23 years old, because frankly I don’t buy that as an excuse for his erratic play any more either.  But though Del Zotto hasn’t lived up to expectations, he is still pencilled in as a top-four defenseman in New York’s short- and long-term plans.

That matters because another key member of the top-four, Dan Girardi, is set to be an unrestricted free agent in July.  And the way things are going, Girardi might not be back.  Girardi has been better than Del Zotto this season, but not by much.  He’s coming off a down year under John Tortorella, so Girardi’s struggles can’t be blamed solely on the coaching change.  No, at 29 years old, it’s likely that we’ve already seen the best of Girardi, and quite possible that he’s begun his decline.

Girardi will likely expect a substantial raise from his $3.325 million cap hit based on his past performance, so the Rangers may be best served by letting him walk.  Money doesn’t have to be the deciding factor – the Rangers have only nine players under contract for next year (including the likely to be bought out Brad Richards) and the salary cap will likely increase, so New York can certainly afford to keep Girardi, it just might not be the wisest use of the team’s money.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many other pending free agents that could reasonably be expected to take Girardi’s minutes as well as man the right side.  Girardi and another pending UFA, Anton Stralman, are the only righties currently on New York’s roster, a concern because the lack of righties has already been a major issue in recent years.  Dion Phaneuf, Dan Boyle and Andrei Markov all hold some appeal – especially given their offensive prowess – but both Boyle and Markov will be dreaded 35+ contracts, and Phaneuf will fetch a huge pact on the open market.  Of that group, only Boyle is a righty.

Which leads us back to Del Zotto.  Expecting him to replace Girardi would be foolish, but Del Zotto is still very affordable, has untapped potential, and has recent experience playing the right side.  Assuming McDonagh and Staal are the top pairing next year, the Rangers would need some combination of Del Zotto, Stralman and John Moore to be the second pairing.  Dylan McIlrath (a righty!) and Conor Allen might be ready for Broadway in 2014, but either would surely be eased into light minutes on the third pairing.

If GM Glen Sather is convinced he wants to keep Girardi, then trading Del Zotto isn’t such a big deal.  But there’s likely some question about that, in which case trading Del Zotto could leave a gaping hole on the roster.  Having to find two top-four replacements in one offseason would be a very difficult task, especially with a weak free agent class.  So the only real way trading Del Zotto could make sense is if the Blueshirts got another defender back.  There hasn’t been a deal because few teams that would want Del Zotto are in position to give up a competent blueliner.  So as maddening as Del Zotto can be, he might not be going anywhere.


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