Dan Girardi envisioned playing his entire National Hockey League career with the New York Rangers.
He spent his first 11 seasons in the League with the Blueshirts and the last three as a permanent alternate captain.
He is the Rangers' all-time leader among skaters for playoff games played (122).
But the salary cap squeeze this past offseason forced the Rangers to make some difficult decisions.
One of those was buying out the contract of Girardi and cutting ties with their long-time defenseman.
Tampa Bay signed Girardi to a two-year contract worth approximately $3 million per season on the first day of free agency and has played in all 13 games this season for the Lightning, tallying one assist, recording a plus-four rating and solidifying the bottom pair of the Bolts blueline. He's partnered with another veteran in Braydon Coburn to give the Bolts a third defensive pair that has combined for almost 1,600 regular season games in the League.
"We're the benefactor of a cap world in that regard," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said when asked what Girardi has added to the Bolts since coming over. "Ultimately, teams can't keep everybody. I think it's kind of been a perfect marriage in the sense that we had some struggles on the penalty kill. We needed that. To bring somebody, kind of a stabilizing force on the back end, he brings that. I think it's his presence in our locker room, the winning he's been doing in New York for all these years and to be honest, he's a hell of a guy. So he kind of fit what we were looking for."
Girardi will face his former team for the first time tonight when the Lightning host the New York Rangers at AMALIE Arena.
"I talked to a couple (Rangers) last night, went and saw the staff today, the training staff in the morning," Girardi said. "I'm really not sure how it's going to feel out there. We'll find out around 7:30 when the puck drops. It's an exciting game for me I think. Just looking forward to get out there and have a good game and hopefully get the win."
Girardi said he wanted to continue his career in New York and eventually retire there, but when it became clear that wasn't an option, Tampa rose to the top of a short list of places where he wanted to continue his career. Getting a phone call from Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman helped seal the deal.
"He kind of told me why he wanted me and what direction the team was going in," Girardi said. "A guy like that gives you a call personally, it's kind of a no brainer. Obviously, having a couple of guys on the team helped the transition as well."
One of those guys is Ryan Callahan, who remained tight with Girardi even after he was dealt to the Lightning as part of the Marty St. Louis trade during the end of the 2013-14 season. Callahan said it'll probably take Girardi a couple of shifts to forget about the opponent and just play hockey. Callahan didn't face the Rangers until November of his second year with the Lightning but had a memorable reunion against his old team, scoring two goals in New York, including a first period power-play tally, to help the Lightning cruise to a 5-1 victory.
"I got lucky. I scored pretty early in that first game, so that really calmed the nerves down," Callahan said. "But I think the biggest thing was just going back to (Madison Square Garden). That was my first game against them was when we went back there. It'll be a little bit different for him, but once you start playing and once you get a couple shifts under your belt, it's another hockey game and you're trying to get two points."
Despite things not working out exactly how he planned, Girardi said he has no regrets and is happy with his decision to join Tampa Bay in the offseason.
"It's a great place to play, a great place to live, great city," he said.
"I'm having a great time."
PAQUETTE RETURNS: Cedric Paquette skated with his teammates for the first time in over two weeks during the Lightning's optional morning skate on Thursday.
Paquette was wearing a regular jersey, indicating he's okay to take contact. He's missed the last six games with an upper-body injury and seven of the Lightning's 13 games overall this season.
Cooper, however, said it will still be a couple games before Paquette is able to return to the lineup.
"Hopefully California," Cooper said, referring to Tampa Bay's West Coast swing that starts next week.