The Rangers’ defense has remained largely intact despite speculation that the club might move a body out for cap relief. Matt Hunwick left for Toronto as an unrestricted free-agent in the off-season, leaving a job as the teams seventh defenseman on the table. The Rangers added Raphael Diaz via free-agency, and have players like Dylan McIlrath, and Chris Summers ready to compete for the job as well.
The former first round pick (10th overall in 2010) has made some strides this year in his progression. McIlrath was excellent for the Hartford Wolf Pack during last seasons playoffs; as he started to display all of the attributes that made the Rangers draft him so high. His game is based around his physicality and the ability to shut down the opponents offense. He made a good impression with the Rangers organization and they opted to sign the defenseman to a one-way deal that’s reportedly worth $600,000 over the course of one-year.
I think the best route to take with McIlrath would be to keep him in the AHL this year and let him further his development. If he’s exceptional at camp then perhaps you move someone out and keep him with the big team, I just think that a defenseman who’s 23-years-old needs to play. If the Rangers keep him in Hartford they will allow him to log big minutes in a good league, build on a solid performance, and prove that he’s ready to make the jump to the next level. The issue with keeping him in the NHL as a seventh defenseman is that he wouldn’t get much ice-time and would have to clear waivers to make it back to the AHL if he started to struggle.
Diaz will be joining the Rangers for the second time in his career, as he was added by the club at the trade deadline of the 2013-2014 season. After serving a one-year deal with Calgary the Swiss defender finds himself back in New York in almost the same situation he was in during his first stint. At the moment Diaz seems to be the lead candidate to land the role as seventh defenseman on the club. The 29-year-old is a sound puck mover and also happens to be a right-handed shot.
The video below displays Diaz’s most impressive goal of his career. What I like about it, is that it shows off all of the players strengths in his game. We see him walk the blue-line, make a move past a defender, continue to take his ice, and eventually tuck the puck in from behind the net.
His ability to make plays like this, as well as work the power-play as a right-handed shot, will give him the edge over his competitors. The team is built around a strong transition game, and having a defense with the confidence to skate the puck out of trouble, and open up space is imperative to that systems success. Diaz did a great job in Calgary last season and was appreciated by the Flames faithful for playing a consistent game despite being in a role as a seventh rear-guard. Diaz only had four points through 56 games, but was always reliable in his own end. The bonus for both parties is that they are familiar with one another, so they should be on the same page immediately.
Summers is a bit of a dark horse to land the spot as the seventh defender on this club, but the 27-year-old has all of the tools to eat some minutes when a guy goes down. The left-handed defenseman played in only three games for the Rangers last season, after being acquired as part of the deal that brought Keith Yandle to New York. Summers was sound in his own end, and didn’t hinder the teams transition. In all three games he logged 15 minutes or more and despite not putting up any points, he didn’t look out-of-place.
The video of Summers below shows that he is capable of bringing an element of grit to the Rangers. You will see Summers come across the ice and lay a heavy hit on a Blue Jacket, he then engages another player and ends up dropping his gloves.
The Rangers don’t really play a gritty style, but that may be exactly why they would keep a guy like Summers. To be clear, he isn’t a fighter, he is just willing to mix it up in the corners and play a heavy game. Summers is a little older than a player like McIlrath, so the organization probably isn’t as concerned about getting him ice-time to further his progression.
At this point, I would give Diaz the job, as he’s more offensive minded and can slot in on the power-play if need be, he also has much more NHL experience than his competitors. I could see Summers with the team for spurts of the season assuming guys will get banged up, but I see him spending most of his time in Hartford. If McIlrath is incredible in camp, then I think the Rangers should look to move a body out off the back-end, and give him a spot on the third pairing with either Diaz or Summers as the spare player. McIlrath making the team would allow the other five defenders to log heavier minutes while still letting the big prospect learn the ropes of the NHL.
Having too many capable defenseman in the NHL is a great problem to have, so their isn’t much urgency around any decision they make. In fact all they have to do is sit back and let the players demonstrate who will land where.