Like every other team in the National Hockey League, the New York Rangers will finalize their opening night roster by 5:00 P.M. Eastern Time Tuesday. The team made its major cuts last week and has been sitting at 24 players ever since, with center Oscar Lindberg headed to injured reserve in order to reach the 23-player maximum roster.
However, the Rangers may not be finished making moves. Larry Brooks of the New York Post is reporting that the club is considering trading defenseman Dylan McIlrath, which would reduce the overall roster to 22 players, seven of which would be defensemen.
Even if McIlrath is not traded, the popular 6-foot-5 intimidator reportedly told Justin Tasch of the New York Daily News on Monday that he will not be part of the team’s top six on the blue line to start the season. That played out at practice Tuesday when McIlrath was the extra d-man, even with Kevin Klein sidelined by back spasms. Brady Skjei and Adam Clendening filled the third pairing at practice.
— Justin Tasch (@J_Tasch) October 11, 2016
So one way or the other, it seems that McIlrath will be on the outside looking in, and the prospects of that have angered the Blueshirts Faithful who have long supported the rugged fan favorite.
Here’s an objective look at the pros and cons of what McIlrath brings to the New York Rangers.
The Case For
First and foremost, McIlrath has a physical presence that the Rangers lack. He is big, intimidating and willing to stand up for his teammates. He has also learned to pick his spots since head coach Alain Vigneault let it known during the 2015 training camp that McIlrath needed to be less of a fighter and more of a solid defender.
Over 34 games last season, McIlrath was assessed only four fighting majors, but there are those who believe that his presence alone is a deterrent on the ice, especially with no one else on the roster possessing that quality. His toughness is underscored by the nicknames Undertaker and Diesel, not to mention the 458 penalty minutes he accumulated over 180 career games in the minor leagues.
In addition, McIlrath seems to know his limitations as a skater and playmaker, and thus does a solid job in clearing pucks out of his own zone with quick, accurate passes up to the forwards, a staple of Vigneault’s preferred style of play where the defensemen are asked to pass first, as opposed to rush the puck up ice themselves.
In the offensive zone, McIlrath does have a hard shot from the point, though he needs to use it more, as evidenced by his 28 recorded shots on goal in over 480 minutes of ice time as a rookie in 2015-16. Still, his strengths are more in the defensive zone than in the offensive one.
According to puckalytics.com, McIlrath recorded the best Corsi among the Rangers’ defensemen a year ago at 51.34 percent, which ranked 70th among all NHL d-men who played at least 200 minutes. Of course several factors come into play here, including the fact that McIlrath only appeared in 34 games, averaged just 14 minutes of ice time per game, and was paired with offensive stalwart Keith Yandle much of his ice time. Bottom line, though, is that his Corsi was better than the likes of Yandle and Ryan McDonagh, and far superior to that of veterans Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.
To his credit, McIlrath handled his limited playing time in solid fashion a year ago. After being a top pair defenseman his final two years with the Hartford Wolf Pack, McIlrath worked hard and did not complain about his diminished role with the Rangers; and when called upon to fill in for extended periods when McDonagh, Girardi and Klein were sidelined with injuries, McIlrath largely performed well.
The Case Against
Including the playoffs, Alain Vigneault has coached more than 1,200 games in the National Hockey League, so his opinion on personnel should be much-valued; and it is clear that AV is not sold on McIlrath. Likely much of that has to do with McIlrath’s skating ability, which has improved over the years, but has also been an issue since the Blueshirts selected him 10th overall in 2010 and was not aided by a fractured kneecap suffered at prospects camp in 2012.
Several scouts have told me that it’s not so much how McIlrath gets up and down the ice, it’s more how he struggles to quickly get from the corner to the front of the net, or from behind the net to back in front. The quick stops and starts while trying to defend are what stand out in a negative way to some hockey people.
In addition, some scouts believe that, despite his size and strength, McIlrath does not win enough battles in front or in the corners, and also question if he is truly an effective intimidating presence. Matt Beleskey broke Derek Stepan’s ribs with a late hit last November on McIlrath’s watch, and Radko Gudas had no qualms boarding Jimmy Vesey during the just-completed preseason with McIlrath on the ice. In both instances, McIlrath willingly jumped in to fight and protect his teammate, but his presence in the lineup did not deter other teams from targeting New York’s skilled players.
Vigneault has had some real good things to say about McIlrath’s work ethic and improvement, both last season and during this year’s training camp. However, there always seems to be a “but” waiting to follow. The coach does not fully trust the player, it seems, or else McIlrath would have spelled a pair of struggling veterans in Girardi and Dan Boyle at times last season. Instead, McIlrath was pretty much relegated to filling in only when a defenseman was injured.
Perhaps Vigneault has somewhat of a blind eye towards McIlrath, and clearly the 24-year-old d-man is frustrated with his situation, so perhaps a parting of the ways makes the most sense for both sides.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.