Coming into training camp, one key job on the New York Rangers to be fought for was the slot of seventh defenseman. It seemed that the battle would be between free agent signing and second-time Ranger Raphael Diaz, and former number 10 overall draft pick Dylan McIlrath. Top prospect Brady Skjei was also in the mix, but the general assumption was that the organization would want to give him some more seasoning in the minors.
A week into the preseason, we are really not that much closer to knowing what decision the Rangers will make for this roster spot.
Skjei Sent Down
In a move that was not altogether surprising, the Rangers sent Skjei back down to the minors after Saturday’s preseason match against New Jersey. Skjei had a fine camp, even notching a goal in last Thursday’s game against Boston. New York is just keen to not rush the 21-year-old along.
The Rangers took a similar route with Ryan McDonagh in the 2010-11 season, having him start the year in AHL Hartford before ultimately calling him up midway through the year. They did not send him back down again. Skjei represents a strong option for the club to call up in the middle of the season if injuries or other transactions create openings on the blue line.
After the game against Boston, head coach Alain Vigneault did not hide his praise for the club’s young prospect on defense.
“He played quite a bit last year in Hartford when he was called up and I was told he played real well,” Vigneault said of Skjei. “The skating and the skill set is there. Is he ready for the NHL? We’ve got probably another week to make that decision.”
Of course, that decision was made only a few days later, but the door is not necessarily shut on Skjei to contribute to the Rangers sometime this season. Vigneault and the rest of the organization clearly like what they have seen. For now though, the battle for the seventh spot on defense is between Diaz and McIlrath, as it really has been from the start.
Diaz vs. McIlrath
Choosing between Diaz and McIlrath will be a difficult decision for the Rangers. Diaz, 29, has a decent amount of NHL experience under his belt, including a stint with the Rangers in the 2013-14 season. General manager Jeff Gorton brought him back for more depth, and he provides tangible skills on the offensive side of the puck — namely, the power play. Diaz displayed his talents in Saturday’s preseason victory over the Devils, picking up two goals with the man advantage, the second of which was an absolute bomb from the left circle during a five-on-three.
After Diaz struggled in an earlier preseason loss in Philadelphia, he rebounded to show the Rangers exactly what he can bring to the table if and when the need arises to insert him into the lineup.
Diaz would probably have a slight edge to cement a roster spot if the Rangers did not really want to see their former top draft pick, McIlrath, succeed. While injuries have played a significant role in hindering his development, McIlrath has thus far been somewhat of a disappointment.
Now 23, this is likely his last shot to earn a regular roster spot with the Rangers. He would have to pass through waivers if the Rangers intended to demote him to Hartford. In so doing, New York would risk losing him for nothing, as another team would likely give him a chance.
McIlrath has had a solid preseason thus far, being in good position defensively. He also showed a willingness to join the rush and nearly scored in the practice overtime period after making a very pretty move at the end of a two-on-one chance.
Diaz seems to be the more sure bet, and his abilities on the power play are very appealing, but McIlrath has not really looked out of place, and as mentioned, the Rangers have a lot of reasons to want to give him a chance to succeed. As Martin St. Louis said in his recent article on the Players’ Tribune, “If you’re not a top prospect, you get put in a lot of situations where you only get one shot to prove that you can play. On the flip side, when you’re a high-profile prospect, you’ll get 10 chances to prove that you can’t play.”
Of course, the Rangers could also consider carrying eight defensemen, but their salary cap situation would make that tricky. Another option would be to trade Kevin Klein and his $2.9 million cap hit, but the fact that that did not happen in the off-season makes it seem unlikely that such a move would be made before the start of the regular season. The Rangers could also trade McIlrath or Diaz, but they just signed Diaz and as mentioned, they do not want to give up on McIlrath just yet.
With all of these factors in play in the Diaz vs. McIlrath situation, the Rangers are faced with a difficult decision, and with a handful of preseason games in the books, they still do not appear to be any closer to making the final call.