Opportunities to see the ice have been hard to come by for Emerson Etem and Dylan McIlrath -- the two youngsters who have been on the outside looking in most every night so far this year.
That's changing, for better or worse, starting tonight against the Islanders. Etem's opportunity started in Monday night's 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, replacing an injured Derek Stepan who is out 4-6 weeks with some broken ribs. Tonight McIlrath will get his opportunity thanks to an oblique injury that will sideline Kevin Klein for 2-3 weeks.
Not exactly the two players you want to see replaced even if it does mean giving the kids a shot.
For the Rangers this opportunity needed to come sooner rather than later. Both are on one year contracts and both are slated to become restricted free agents at the end of the year. The Rangers brass needs to figure out what they have in them if they're going to make an intelligent decision about whether or not to keep them. That's not even taking into consideration the Rangers targeted Etem from the get-go and made him the centerpiece of the Carl Hagelin trade over the summer.
Opportunities to play doesn't exactly mean a great opportunity, though. Etem was relegated to the fourth line against Carolina -- not a role suited to his strengths at all -- and saw just 12% of his starts come in the offensive zone at even strength. For a guy who didn't look out of place when he was put into the top six earlier this year it's a waste of his talents to have him down there. Sure, it's helping him round out his defensive game, but the Rangers have enough possession problems without tossing Etem on the fourth line and giving him brutal defensive assignments.
McIlrath is in a bit of a better situation, since the Rangers have enough defensive issues that losing Klein will force them to get a little interesting. I've been begging Vigneault to give Ryan McDonagh - Keith Yandle the long-term first-pairing nod, but Dan Girardi keeps getting left there instead.
Where McIlrath can find himself buried is if Vigneault skips over some of his rotations and keeps him around the 12-minute mark per game. That doesn't help anyone, Rangers included.
Against the Hurricanes Vigneault played Girardi more than any other defenseman (or player) on the team. Four minutes more than McDonagh. That tells me that Vigneault believes Girardi is one of the best defenseman on this team. Don't talk to me about penalties, McDonagh is a better penalty killer. You ride your top guys in crunch time. Girardi should not be in that category.
I talked Monday about how Vigneault needed to get uncomfortable to help fix the problems these Rangers have despite their record. That didn't happen Monday against the Hurricanes. Maybe this will help it happen starting tonight against the Islanders.
So will Etem and McIlrath get a shot to play more with the injuries? Yes.
Will Etem and McIlrath get an opportunity to flourish for better or worse? We'll see.