TAMPA, Fla. — Dan Girardi was walking through his Westchester County neighborhood to pick up his son from school last summer when he received the game-changing call from general manager Jeff Gorton. Girardi was told that his time with the Rangers was over.
The defenseman, who had played 11 seasons for the Rangers, was told he was going to be bought out of the final three seasons of his contract.
“I was pretty upset, not like mad upset, just disappointed,” Girardi, 33, recalled on Thursday before facing his former team for the first time at Amalie Arena. “I didn’t even call my wife right away. I was still processing it. It was tough for the first couple weeks, not knowing what was next. I know I can still play.”
Several inquiries eventually came in, he said, “and it was very reassuring that there was still interest. I had options.”
Girardi, who is ninth on the list of games played for the Rangers, listened especially closely when Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman reached out with an offer of a two-year contract and described what he thought he could bring to the table.
“I said, ‘That’s kind of what I do every day,’ ” Girardi said. “It seemed like a great fit . . . I’m just really, really re-energized, just love my time here.”
The Rangers beat Tampa Bay, 2-1, in overtime on Thursday night, but before that, the Lightning (10-2-2) was flying and the Rangers (5-7-2) were limping.
“I try to keep tabs, but I don’t really worry about what’s happening up there,” said Girardi, who finished with one shot, one hit and one block in 16:59 on Thursday night. “I’ve just gotta go out and play a regular game [Thursday night], I’ve got to worry about myself. I had a great time in New York, but that book is closed now.”
Girardi and his family are close to Ryan Callahan’s family, and the former Rangers teammates had discussed a potential move south. Callahan also plays with the Lightning.
“We talk all the time,” Callahan said Thursday, “and once I found out there was a chance, we talked every other day. To be honest, not much about hockey, but the community, schooling . . . two polar-opposite lifestyles.”
Unlike the sudden uprooting that an in-season trade brings, Girardi described “an easy transition. We got here in August, bought a house [actually from Yzerman], got the kids in school and I practiced for a month and a half. We had a lot of time to adjust, and I’m really enjoying my six-minute drive to the rink, as opposed to an hour and 15 minutes on the train.”
To be sure, Girardi also liked the look of the Lightning.
“They didn’t make the playoffs, so they were going to be hungry,” he said, “and they were getting Cally and Stammer [Steven Stamkos] back” from surgeries. “It was an easy choice.”
On the ice, Girardi has developed a relationship with coach Jon Cooper.
“He just wants me to come in and be myself, play good defensively, block shots,” Girardi said. “If I can contribute offensively, great, but we’ve got enough talent in this room to score.”
Girardi had only one assist but led the club in blocks (27), was averaging 13:37 on ice per game, including 2:50 shorthanded, and was a plus-4 in 13 games entering Thursday.
According to Cooper, the Lightning is “the benefactor of a cap world” in Girardi’s case. “Ultimately, teams can’t keep everybody,’’ he said. “It’s been a perfect marriage, in the sense that we had some struggles on the penalty kill, he’s helped that. To bring a stabilizing force on the back end, he’s done that. And he’s a hell of a guy.”