I for one didn't see Dylan McIlrath making the roster over Raphael Diaz when training camp got underway, but the Rangers' waiving of Diaz yesterday means that McIlrath won the battle for the role of the club's seventh defenseman. It's time to take a look at what that means for the Rangers and the roster they're going with for the 2015-16 season. Let's take a closer look at #6 on the Rangers' blue line and get an idea of what McIlrath is all about.
McIlrath is the biggest Rangers' defenseman by a noteworthy margin, being 10 pounds heavier and an inch taller than the runner-up Marc Staal. At 6'5" and 200 lbs the 23 year old is now the second biggest skater on the roster behind only the gangly, towering sophomore forward Kevin Hayes.
Diaz is just 5'11" and 200 lbs which might have influenced the Rangers' coaching staff given the lack of physicality in the team's top nine forwards outside of Chris Kreider. The Rangers might not be a better puck-moving team with McIlrath in the lineup, but they certainly are a bigger and nastier team.
McIlrath's imposing frame might make him the strongest player on the roster. His strength his apparent from how easily he can find himself in the penalty box when his strength and aggression get the better of him as well as how well he has done fighting seasoned veterans in the league. Here's McIlrath's scrap from the Rangers' second game against the Bruins when his physicality was on full display.
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McIlrath's presence on the Rangers' roster makes Tanner Glass even closer to obsolete than he already was. Despite having a long history of being one of the league's leading tough guys, Glass stands at just 6'1" and weighs in at 210 lbs. The Rangers' decision to go with McIlrath over Raphael Diaz comes at the expense of skating and puck movement (not a good thing), but adds a significant amount of size to a Rangers' roster that was criticized by some for being too small throughout the 2014-15 season and the 2015 Playoffs.
McIlrath's ability to move the puck has been a source of criticism with him for quite some time and is something that head coach Alain Vigneault focused on at the beginning of training camp. Vigneault wanted to see more out of McIlrath than pucks being rattled up the boards when the pressure was on, he wanted to see confidence and stick-to-stick passing that proved he was closer to being NHL ready.
Although passing and puck movement is still a noteworthy weakness in his game, McIlrath's heavy shot is something that is a welcome addition on the Rangers' back end. We only got to see it a few times in the preseason but when McIlrath put a low shot on net the resounding thud it made against the leg pads of the opposing goaltender made the sweet music that we all recognize comes along with juicy rebounds. The real question is will McIlrath be given any real opportunity to get shots on net when he finds himself in regular season games with the Rangers.
Between the Ears
The improvement in positioning and aggression that we all witnessed from what McIlrath looked like in the 2014 preseason and training camp was, frankly, astounding. The crucible that was the 2015 camp and preseason brought out the best in McIlrath who knew going into camp that this was indeed his last best shot at becoming a New York Ranger.
Here are some noteworthy quotes from Alain Vigneault and Jeff Gorton on McIlrath making the team from Andrew Gross' outstanding Rangers Rants.
"There's a definitely strong performance from his point and he obviously, in our opinion, really progressed from what we remembered last year. You need young players to force your hands sometimes. Diaz came in and did everything we expected. We discussed it yesterday, coaches and management, and we thought Dylan deserved to start here. Selfishly, I'm hoping Diaz clears waivers."
"There's been an evolution to his game. He's come a long way. It's taken a while for a big guy. But he's played really well and done a lot of things we've asked him to do."
After the Rangers waived Jayson Megna and Raphael Diaz, McIlrath led his teammates in the team's stretching exercise during practice. McIlrath has had his work cut out for him ever since the Rangers' drafted him earlier than he was projected to go with the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and he isn't taking finally making the Rangers' roster at age 23 for granted.
"It's been a pretty long road to get to this point. I worked really hard and that makes it more gratifying. I couldn't be happier. They (the coaching staff) said I made the team based on playing a simple, competitive game. The way I'll stay up here is if I continue doing that."
The greatest test for McIlrath this season, when he gets into the Rangers' lineup, will be controlling his aggression and proving that he is trustworthy on the Rangers' bottom pairing and deserves to have the role of the club's seventh defenseman.
We were reminded of McIlrath's issues with controlling his aggression with both a charging minor against Boston on Zac Rinaldo who was wreaking havoc all over the ice as well as an illegal check to the head against Tyler Kennedy in a tilt against the Devils that was a great deal more troubling.
"I was trying to finish a check," McIlrath said. "It was the right call. Obviously, I didn't want any kind of hit to the head. I definitely wasn't trying to hurt him at all."
I expect we'll see McIlrath come into the lineup in relief of the 39 year old veteran Dan Boyle who would likely benefit from having a game off every now and then. We also might see him get plugged in at the expense of Kevin Klein who is likely the most expendable and easy-to-deal players among the Rangers' current blueliners with the emergence of McIlrath as a reliable option on the Ranger's blue line.
Say what you will about the downside of having McIlrath as the Rangers' seventh defenseman at the expense of Diaz, but you have to admit that the big kid from Manitoba did everything he had to do to earn the job. Although, in all fairness, the same could be said of Diaz who, in my opinion, was rather harshly judged throughout camp and the preseason. Vigneault's quote about hoping Diaz clears waivers says a lot about just how tough of a decision this was for the men in suits and how much the Rangers' coaching staff wants Diaz as an option moving forward. A big part of that probably has something to do with McIlrath's lack of experience in the NHL.
Are the Rangers a better team with McIlrath as their seventh defenseman than they are with Diaz in that role? I'm not convinced they are. They are, however, a much more physical team and when McIlrath is on the ice for the Rangers that will be readily apparent to the opposition by the rattling of the boards when he steps up to take the body and punish the opposition for entering the Rangers' zone. Will he stay healthy? Will we see him spending too much time sitting on the bench in the penalty box? Today McIlrath should feel confident and satisfied with winning the job that he has won, but if he plays in a manner that hurts his team, which is something that he has shown he can do, he could find himself on the waiver wire before we get out of October. I hope he continues to prove those who doubt him wrong the way he did in the preseason and seize this opportunity by the horns.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading. Let's go Rangers.