Let me just start off by saying I supported Dylan McIlrath. The 24-year old defenseman who the Rangers took with the number 10 pick overall in the 2010 NHL Draft was placed on waivers today. In typical fashion, he showed class.
“I’m never going to blame this on the coaches. This was all about my play and not earning a spot in the lineup,” McIlrath told New York Post reporter Brett Cyrgalis.
Be that as it may, McIlrath proved in his rookie season that he was capable of adjusting under Vigneault. When called upon to fill in for injured starter Dan Girardi, McIlrath acquitted himself well while paired with Keith Yandle. While the other pairs struggled defensively, McIlrath and Yandle usually found themselves on the plus-side of the ledger. They were more effective at five-on-five frequently finishing with a positive shots for differential. The stuff the corsi/possession community base everything on.
However, despite McIlrath asserting himself in 34 games even scoring two goals and two assists, he was never gonna get a fair shake under Vigneault. Once Rangers GM Jeff Gorton traded for Nick Holden, who has now been miscast on the top pair with Ryan McDonagh (go figure), the writing was on the wall. You don’t send a fourth round pick to Colorado for a 29-year old veteran who played all 82 last year to keep him as an extra. Something Holden opponents don’t get. It’s not his fault he’s out of his league with McDonagh. That falls on the same coach who had no use for McIlrath.
When late addition Adam Clendening had an impressive training camp and preseason, that spelled doom. A 24-year old blue liner who’s on his fifth team looks perfectly suited for Vigneault’s system. He is an excellent skater who reads the play well and is a good fit on the point of the power play. In five games, he was fine even making a great play defensively from behind his net to start a breakout that led to a goal for his first point as a Ranger. Naturally, he found himself the odd man out the last two games.
Vigneault still limited Clendening’s shifts at even strength. He cut down when protecting leads in the third period. That means that he still doesn’t trust Clendening defensively. If there is a weakness, it’s his strength. There’s a reason he’s been on four rosters before. He’s never been a NHL regular. However, the right D deserves the chance to prove he belongs.
With McIlrath done, the Rangers are finally down to seven defensemen. Even though he only got into one game and did what he always did- standing up for a teammate which backup goalie Antti Raanta appreciated, it was enough to get him benched due to an extra minor for roughing. That’s how Vigneault treated him. With kid gloves. He doesn’t believe in toughness. So, cheap shots like the one David Pastrnak delivered on a defenseless Dan Girardi last night will continue. So what if the NHL Department of Player Safety is having a hearing. They’ll probably turn the other cheek much like the Ranger coach tells his players to do.
There’s nothing wrong with the way the team plays. They’re a fun and exciting group that’s been improved thanks to Gorton’s strong off-season. The additions of Jimmy Vesey and Brandon Pirri have made the offense so much better. Each are tied for the team lead with four goals. Michael Grabner has supplied needed depth to the checking line and penalty kill. Josh Jooris also didn’t look out of place scoring once in five games before leaving last night’s win with a separated shoulder that will keep him out three to four weeks.
The timing actually works out because all indications are Pavel Buchnevich is ready to be activated. The talented Russian rookie definitely is a top nine forward with terrific speed and skill. He was fitting in well with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider before back spasms kept him out the last five games. Kreider has missed the last two due to neck spasms. If Buchnevich is back in and Kreider isn’t, look for him to return to the Zibanejad line with Mats Zuccarello.
Offensively speaking, the ’16-17 Blueshirts are a treat to watch. They’re tied for first with the Oilers in offense with a whopping 3.86 goals per game. With Vesey fitting in on a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash while J.T. Miller continues to be plugged anywhere and produce, they are four lines deep. Kevin Hayes has shown some glimpses getting his second goal on Wednesday. The defensively reliable Jesper Fast has been a good fit for Hayes. Oscar Lindberg just returned and was part of the fourth line. Once Buchnevich and Kreider return, is he the odd man out?
Defensively, the Rangers still have question marks. Thus far, Girardi has been better so far. He definitely works well with rookie partner Brady Skjei, who does most of the skating. Skjei did make a mistake that caused the second Boston goal when he went for a block and got in the way of Henrik Lundqvist. Something MSG’s Steve Valiquette illustrated. What appeared to be a soft goal actually changed direction off Skjei and caused Lundqvist to not pick it up until very late where he got a piece of it.
If Marc Staal continues to excel due to better health and being more rested, the blue line is stronger. However, he and partner Kevin Klein still can be beat occasionally. The issue remains why Vigneault prefers Holden with McDonagh. He clearly isn’t comfortable on the right side and has turned over pucks. I would prefer Klein moved up or even Girardi back with his original partner.
As for McIlrath, it’s a shame it didn’t work out. He worked his butt off to comeback from career threatening injuries. There’s always gonna be a ‘what if.’ What if he didn’t get hurt? Would he have developed quicker and been part of the roster? We’ll never know. However, most fans enjoyed his energy and passion. He was that first true tough defenseman since Mike Sauer.
Having observed him closely last year, I don’t think he was a novelty act. McIlrath could actually play. It’s just that he didn’t fit into Vigneault’s plans. All it takes is a coach who has a different philosophy. With Vigneault, it remains to be seen if the Rangers can be as successful as they were the first two seasons under him. Nobody denies that he did a great job getting them to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and within a period of a second consecutive trip. It’s just that in the playoffs, there is less room on the ice and it becomes harder to play a speed and skill style. There are more battles.
If there is a positive, the Pens proved you could win with four good lines and tons of speed and skill. They also boasted Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with D anchor Kris Letang playing the best hockey of his career. They were also defensively sound protecting rookie goalie Matt Murray. The Rangers’ personnel on defense isn’t the best. We’ll see.
As for McIlrath, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s a solid team player with tremendous character. Hopefully, he lands on his feet and has a successful NHL career elsewhere. Good luck Big Mac.