Ask Lightning coach Jon Cooper about veteran newcomer Dan Girardi and be prepared for a lengthy answer. For as much as he knew about Girardi coaching against him all these years, Cooper has a more complete understanding of the former Rangers defenseman now that they are on the same team.
“You can appreciate certain guys more once you have them with you,” Cooper told Sporting News Canada. “Dan was always one of those guys you didn’t really notice as the opposing coach because he always was in a defensive role, not the guy running the power play, for example. He always did those unsung hero things. When you get him under your umbrella, that’s when you really can appreciate him more.”
Cooper can’t use that word – appreciate – enough when he talks about Girardi, who at age 33 signed a two-year contract with the Lightning after having his contract bought out by the Rangers at the end of last season.
Over the course of 11 years on Broadway, Girardi never missed more than two games in a season until injuries slowed him the past two seasons when he appeared in 74 and 63 games. An absolute warrior on the ice, and an equally funny teammate off it, Girardi was a key member of the Blueshirts core that appeared in three Eastern Conference Finals and the 2014 Stanley Cup Final over the span of four seasons.
The Rangers impressive run ended with a stunning Game Seven loss to the Cooper-led Lightning in the 2015 conference final after New York won the President’s Trophy in the regular season.
Even though Cooper got a pretty good idea how important a player Girardi is, he didn’t see just how valuable Girardi is until this fall.
“He’s everything our team needed,” stated Cooper before offering up a pair of examples.
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“By no means am I comparing him to Nicklas Lidstrom, but I don’t even know how fast Nicklas Lidstrom was. He just knew where to go on the ice; and Dan has been really good at that, as well. Just knowing where to be, what shot lane to be in. Plus, his willingness to sacrifice his body for the betterment of the team, blocking shots. That takes guts.”
That’s how Girardi won over his new coach on the ice. Then there’s how he’s done it off the ice.
“You don’t get to see what goes on in the locker room until you have him here, when he’s with the young guys,” explained Cooper. “That’s the part I am really starting to appreciate. You have a guy like (19-year-old rookie defenseman Mikhail) Sergachev here, and he could choose to go to Girardi for advice or whatever, but Girardi instead goes to him. You just don’t step into the league and win the Norris. You need to be guided, you need help. Dan offers that to the young players.”
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It’s so far, so good for Girardi and the Lightning. Girardi has fit in quickly, usually paired with either Victor Hedman or Braydon Coburn, as the Lightning started off with a 5-1-1 record heading into Thursday’s tasty clash between Eastern Conference contenders against the Blue Jackets.
“We’re glad to have him.”