From Dan Girardi to Neal Pionk, the Rangers success with undrafted defense
The annual NHL entry draft is a yearly opportunity for organizations to stock pile young talent that they hope will make their collective rosters one day. Teenagers from all over North American and Europe are evaluated, tested, graded, critiqued and summarized at the scouting combine. These neophytes are then slotted as to which round they are likely to be selected in.
Currently, the NHL draft is seven rounds long. Since there are now 31 teams in the National Hockey League, that means there are 217 potential draft picks. Out of those 217 young men fortunate enough to have been drafted, less than half will actually play in the NHL. An even smaller percentage will become impact players. An even smaller percentage will become all-stars. The closer a player is to selection number 217, the lower the odds of them donning an NHL sweater and playing in an NHL game.
An even bigger anomaly is a player that goes un-drafted making an NHL roster. You see, if an 18 year old, fresh out of the Canadian Junior ranks, United States Developmental League, or European club team, isn’t among the 217 draft selections, this usually means that particular player never caught the trained eyes of the savvy NHL scouts.
The Undrafted Dan Girardi
Once former Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi turned 18, he became eligible for the 2003 entry draft. The draft was nine rounds long in the third year of the new millennium and the Welland, Ontario native was not among the 292 teenagers that were selected. Undaunted and undeterred, Girardi forged ahead and continued his Junior career until turning pro in 2005. Now age 21, Girardi was finally noticed by NHL scouts and it was the Rangers that invited him to their training camp. Girardi would sign on and be assigned to the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL.
The following season, Girardi would get promoted to the Rangers AHL affiliate in Hartford where he really started to open up the eyes and minds of the Ranger hierarchy. On January 27th, 2007, Dan Girardi got the phone call he was waiting his whole life for. An injury to incumbent defenseman Darius Kasparaitis left a hole on the Ranger blue-line that Girardi, who wore number 46 at the time, was more than happy to fill. Once the man they call “G” entered the Rangers lineup, he would become a pillar of strength and inspiration that would last for over a decade.
He wasn’t the biggest. He wasn’t the fastest. He wasn’t the most skilled. He wasn’t the best skater. He did not remind anyone of Bobby Orr offensively nor did he remind anyone of Rod Langway defensively. Girardi’s traits, the factors that got him signed to an NHL roster, were those of toughness, durability, sacrifice and leadership. His unbridled tenacity and sheer determination helped him represent the Rangers in the 2012 All Star Game in Ottawa. Girardi is a true rags-to-riches story who will be remembered fondly by the Garden Faithful.
So, a right handed defeseman who went un-drafted, who was told he was too small and too slow and not skilled enough to play in the NHL. A player that would not give up his dream of playing in the NHL. A player that more than paid his dues, plus interest. A player that continued to work hard and improve and a player that refused to capitulate in any way regarding his desire to play in the NHL. Yes, I am describing Dan Girardi, but I am also describing current Ranger defenseman, Neal Pionk. Girardi and Pionk have distinctly different styles of play. However, their paths to the NHL are remarkably similar.
The Undrafted Neal Pionk
Like Girardi, Pionk was not drafted. Like Girardi, Pionk’s stick-to-it-tiveness finally caught the attention of NHL scouts. Like Girardi, Pionk was signed by the Rangers and assigned to the AHL Hartford Wolfpack. Like Girardi, Pionk was called up to the big club in a fill-in roll. Like Girardi, Pionk would make the most of the opportunity and become a fixture on the Ranger blue-line.
Pionk is in just his second year playing for the Rangers and he continues to improve steadily. Ranger fans and brain trust alike will be thrilled if the Nebraska native’s impact is comparable to that of the former Ranger and current Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman. The Rangers, in the midst of a rebuild, will need young guns like Pionk to be the foundation of the next great core of players the way Girardi was the bedrock of the teams that went on deep playoff runs from 2012 through 2015. The Rangers found the quintessential diamond in the rough with Dan Girardi back in 2005. It certainly appears as if they did it again with Neal Pionk in 2017.
My goodness, if the Rangers could only have this sort of success with their first round picks that they do with un-drafted free agent defenseman.