Dylan McIlrath got into the lineup twice in as many days against the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers in late November, his performance in those games has given Rangers fans the feeling that the big man who the Rangers drafted 10th overall in 2010 is finally ready to patrol the blue-line full-time. After his strong showing, number six in blue was back on the bench as a healthy scratch in place of veteran Dan Boyle. Even though it seems that McIlrath has been the better player, the Rangers are committed to Boyle, as their paying him 4.5 million for the season, so the thought is that they have to keep playing in hopes that their investment pays off. As fate would have it, that same game saw Kevin Klein, whose been arguably the Rangers best defender to this point, strain his oblique, giving McIlrath another window to prove that he should be skating full-time in a blue sweater.
McIlrath is usually deployed with Keith Yandle and it seems to be working out for the defensive-minded blue-liner. Sometimes when the Rangers insert new defenders I get the feeling that they are trying to make the perfect outlet pass every time, but McIlrath hasn’t been over-reaching himself. When he gets into trouble he moves it out, and when he has something he takes it. His basic style has been helpful for a Rangers back-end that has been too cute in my opinion.
The most encouraging sign to me is that the Rangers’ coaching staff has taken notice of his progression, and has been giving the defender bigger minutes. In his last three games he’s logged 13:09, 15:21, and 17:15 respectively. To add a bit of context, all of these were games that were close, so it isn’t as if the coaches were just putting him out there for meaningless minutes to get him some time. In the past the big defender has been caught trying to knock guys into next moth on every shift, but this season has been completely different as he’s been staying home, picking his spots, and making opponents pay a physical price, without losing his position.
Now it’s worth noting that McIlrath doesn’t have a point yet, but that doesn’t mean he’s been bad on the other side of the puck. He’s found a way to keep plays alive and get some shots through to the net. A little known fact about the defender, is that he has a missile for a slap-shot, and as he gets more comfortable, I expect to see it more. Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault spoke about McIlrath’s play against the Islanders to the media, “I do think he made a few plays with the puck, that were high percentage, and good plays at the right time.” Vigneault continued, “He knows, that for the time being Kleiner (Klein) is out, it’s on his right side so it’s given him a good opportunity.” So far the big man has been living up to his end of the opportunity, and if he keeps this up the Rangers’ coaching staff will have some tough choices to make.
McIlrath’s key asset as a player has always been that he brings a big physical edge. So far he has 20 hits and 24 penalty minutes, in just eight games played. Even though the defender is at his best when he’s playing a heavy style, he hasn’t been overly eager to play greasy; we’ve only seen him drop the gloves when necessary and it’s an encouraging sign, because if he was running around like a mad man, there’s no doubt in my mind that he wouldn’t be playing.
The Rangers have severely lacked that ferocious presence on the ice and having the big man patrol the blue-line seems to be having a positive effect. Dan Girardi told Andrew Gross of North Jersey.com about the presence McIlrath brings “He stops the screwing around a little bit. If teams are starting to take runs at our top guys and making big hits, he’s going to hold them accountable.” I think it’s fair to say that the true enforcer is gone, but that doesn’t mean that teams don’t need some bite in their game. Teams now need guys who can both provide a physical presence, and contribute on the ice, and the defender is bringing that to the Rangers, so they don’t need to burn a roster spot on a pure greaser.
McIlrath is ferocious on the blue-line, and frankly, there are few guys in the league who play the defensive position with such physicality. The Rangers need this guy in the lineup full-time; too often we see this team leaving guys untouched in front of the net and getting cute on the wall instead of playing an honest straight forward game. You can make a case that the defender has been the Rangers most consistent defenseman over the past few games and that’s because he isn’t trying to do too much. I think that when Klein does get back you move Boyle to that number seven spot. I understand that he’s a veteran, and your paying him a lot of money, but McIlrath is part of the future on this defense and he brings the fierce but collected grit that the Rangers sorely lack.