Six years ago, the Rangers took a risk when they went off the board and selected defenseman Dylan McIlrath out of Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League. The Winnipeg native who went number 10 overall ahead of Cam Fowler– taken two picks later by the Ducks- was considered a reach.
As most have since observed, Vladimir Tarasenko was still available along with Jaden Schwartz. Both have evolved into key scorers for their respective teams. Tarasenko a 40-goal threat while Schwartz is more well rounded. Ironically, both play for the Blues. Other notables of the first round include Nick Bjugstad, Kevin Hayes, Charlie Coyle and Brock Nelson.
At the time, the Rangers needed a defenseman. So, the notion that they missed out on Tarasenko is misguided. They prioritized D. That day, I attended a team Draft Party in the city. It was fun even thought it was crammed. I was all for them grabbing Fowler. A player I’d seen on Team USA at the Under-20 World Junior Championships. But with the team having committed to ’08 first round pick Michael Del Zotto, they decided they didn’t need another left skating offensive defenseman.
So, they went for McIlrath. A big, strong stay at home right D who represented the old guard. A mean player who could clear the front of the net and protect teammates. A serious knee injury at age 20 contributed to his demise. If not for that injury, he probably develops faster. Instead, the bad knee hindered his skating and forced the Rangers to be very patient with him. He spent the majority of three years with the Wolf Pack between ’12-13 and ’14-15.
The Rangers recalled him in ’13-14 for two games. Coach Alain Vigneault hardly used him. He got baptized by Flames’ enforcer Brian McGrattan, who he took on and battled to a draw on Dec. 15, 2013. McGrattan gave him a tap on the shoulder in a show of respect. After that second game, he went back down and completed the season with Hartford finishing with six goals, 11 assists and 165 penalty minutes with a plus-two rating in 62 contests.
After getting into one more game during ’14-15 in which he had another fight and nine penalty minutes, McIlrath spent most of the season in Hartford where he again went 6-11-17 with 165 PIM in 73 games. He helped the Wolf Pack reach the third round of the AHL playoffs tallying two assists and 23 PIM with a plus-two in 15 games.
With no more options, he had to make the Rangers last season. It was either they designate him for waivers where any team could’ve claimed him or they keep him up. In a year where mainstays Dan Girardi and Marc Staal struggled coming off surgery from serious injuries sustained in the 2015 postseason, McIlrath was needed. As the team’s seventh defenseman, he didn’t disappoint. Showing improvement from training camp, he gained enough trust from Vigneault where he finally played him.
McIlrath got into 34 games as a rookie registering two goals and two assists with a plus-seven rating and 64 penalty minutes. When he did get in the lineup for an injured Girardi, he was a bright spot playing alongside Keith Yandle on the third pair. When they played together, Yandle and McIlrath were the team’s most consistent defensive pair at even strength, faring well in shot differential. A statistic measured by Corsi/possession.
While Girardi struggled mightily, Vigneault preferred to stay loyal to him. He played the majority despite a bad knee. The coach just didn’t trust McIlrath enough to play him consistently. But Big Mac did help avenge Ryan McDonagh when he battled Wayne Simmonds in a home rematch with the Flyers after a big hit by the Flyer power forward concussed McDonagh. However, he only got into one game in the postseason. This despite a defense which was a mess. That included an aging Dan Boyle, who had his own issues and ripped into antagonist Larry Brooks before permanently retiring.
What it came down to is Vigneault chose to go down with the players who helped the team reach a 2014 Stanley Cup Final and come within a period of doing so again a year later before getting shutout by the Lightning. In a way, it was understandable. He showed loyalty to the vets. However, it wasn’t the wisest decision which left some observers frustrated.
Entering his second season, McIlrath was supposed to be part of the defense. However, the acquisition of Nick Holden from Colorado in the summer and promised development of Brady Skjei stood in the way. In truth, Skjei has the makings of an excellent puck moving defenseman who can flourish in today’s faster NHL. He’s really played well thus far posting eight assists while playing even strength and power play. The game has changed. The image of the tough defenseman in the mold of new assistant Jeff Beukeboom is coming to a close. However, the process was far from fair.
A surprising camp from Adam Clendening overshadowed McIlrath, who fell to eighth on the depth chart. With Girardi and Staal proving to be healthier and improved, Vigneault only got McIlrath into one game. In it, he stood up for backup Antti Raanta getting an extra minor for roughing with Sharks’ forward Tomas Hertl late in the second period. Even though Raanta appreciated it, Vigneault didn’t benching McIlrath. He never saw the ice in a third period which saw the Sharks cut into a 5-2 lead making it 5-4 with the Rangers going with five defensemen. They did win 7-4 on two empty netters.
It didn’t sit well with me how Vigneault treated McIlrath. Shortening the bench almost cost the team the game. The writing was on the wall. Once Girardi returned, he was done. With Vigneault preferring the puck possession, skating game from Clendening, who also has been underused, they finally came to a decision on McIlrath putting him on waivers. No one claimed him allowing him to clear and get into games with Hartford.
After playing four games and totaling 11 penalty minutes with a minus-three, the now 24-year old McIlrath finally was freed from jail. The Rangers traded him to the Panthers in exchange for journeyman Steven Kampfer and a conditional 2018 seventh round pick. The deal came down an hour ago and was broken by TSN insider Bob McKenzie. The conditional pick depends on if McIlrath plays 30 games for Florida. If he does, then the Rangers get the pick.
Honestly, who cares. I’m not going to say I didn’t see it coming. It was pretty obvious that McIlrath’s days as a Ranger were done. That was decided by Vigneault a long time ago. To McIlrath’s credit, he didn’t blame the coaching staff for the situation. He blamed himself indicating that his play wasn’t good enough during preseason. This guy is a tremendous character with a gigantic heart. He would never do that. It’s not his style.
It’s a shame that it ended this way. But I really wanted him to get a chance elsewhere. Now, maybe he’ll find a new home with the Panthers. I hope it works out. Ironically, Florida is also the home of Yandle, who signed a long-term contract with them after they acquired his free agent rights this past summer. He’s teamed with anchor Aaron Ekblad on the top pair. In 13 games, Yandle has seven assists and a plus-two. Ekblad has struggled with just two goals and no helpers.
Florida also counts on Jason Demers and Alex Petrovic for big minutes on the blue line. Mike Matheson has been a surprise. If there is a spot that opens up for McIlrath, it could be number six where Mark Pysyk is currently. Poetically, he was also taken in the first round of the famed 2010 Draft going number 23 overall to the Sabres. Thirteen spots behind McIlrath. Pysyk was acquired by Florida in the off-season in a four-player deal that sent Dmitri Kulikov to Buffalo with the teams swapping 2016 second round picks. Florida also got a third round pick too.
The Panthers lost some edge when they moved tough right defenseman Erik Gudbranson to the Canucks for forward Jared McCann before the 2016 playoffs concluded. Neither has made an impact. Florida felt it needed toughness. So, they sent the well traveled Kampfer to the Rangers. Only he’ll be reassigned to Hartford. As for McIlrath, he could play for the Panthers, which would be much better for him.
Hopefully, it works out. All in all, the Rangers butchered McIlrath. Any way you slice it, they messed up. Between the time it took to develop him and the PR quotes from Vigneault about how he liked him was all a front. In hindsight, they would’ve been better off selecting Fowler, who’s off to a better start for the Ducks. As far as Tarasenko, they were never taking him. They were going D. So, quit whining.
At 24, McIlrath gets a new opportunity. Hopefully, a second chance to see if he can make it. He’s already been successful showing tremendous heart coming back to make the NHL. Whether or not he can stick remains to be seen. Best of luck to him the rest of the way.