Five years from when Dylan McIlrath was drafted in the first round, I keep finding myself saying the same thing about him; I don't know if he's good enough to be an NHL defenseman, but I do know that he's earned a chance to prove that he is.
Unfortunately for McIlrath, it's not as simple as that. The Rangers already have seven defensemen signed at the NHL level, including four righthanded defensemen. That puts the Rangers in an incredibly awkward position, because McIlrath, who turned 23 in April and will be entering his fourth professional season, will have to pass through waivers if the Rangers want to send him down to Hartford at the end of the preseason. We could beat the dead horse and talk about Vladimir Tarasenko and Cam Fowler, but what's done is done. As things stand now, McIlrath is still a valuable asset, and the Rangers won't be eager to lose him for nothing. Thus, they need to figure out the best course of action. They have a few options at their disposal. Let's look at them.
Keep Him In The NHL
Assuming that Oscar Lindberg is on the opening not roster and there are no other changes, the Rangers would have just about $850,000 in remaining camp space. As such, they could fit McIlrath's cap hit of $600,000 and keep him on the NHL roster.
There are a few problems with this, however. The lesser of problems is that the longer he's on the roster, the more cap room he eats up that could be dedicated to a trading deadline acquisition. Every penny matters in a cap world, and the Rangers will not feel great if the difference between them adding a big piece for the cup run or not is a few hundred thousand dollars that were spent on the eighth defenseman early in the year.
The bigger issue is that this only serves as a stall tactic. The Rangers' right side of the defense is locked into place with Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle, and Kevin Klein, while Raphael Diaz seves as the seventh defenseman. Even in extreme circumstances, such as last Fall when half of the defense was on the shelf, the eighth defenseman isn't going to play many games. Last season Michael Kostka and Chris Summers combined for 10 games with the Rangers. A few weeks as a healthy scratch in the NHL might be benificial for McIlrath in that he'd get to experience daily life in the league, travel with the team, and work one-on-one with Ulf Samuelsson, but after that it would only be a hindrance. Sitting around for most of the season and playing 7-10 games isn't going to cut it.
Of course, injuries do happen, though. Should one of the defensemen suffer a long-term injury then McIlrath would suddenly be the team's seventh defenseman, and that would be a passable role for him. But in all likelihood, making McIlrath the eighth defenseman probably doesn't solve anything in itself, but rather just gives the Rangers more time to figure out what they want to do.
Waive Him Early
A tactic teams in these kinds of situations sometimes employ is placing the player in question on waivers early into training camp. The idea is that teams don't have a complete picture of how their depth charts are unfolding at that point, and that early in camp teams are already consumed with letting the big group of players already in the organization battle for spots. A team is more likely to scoop up McIlrath in early October after one defenseman massively disappointed in training camp and another one broke his foot in the final preseason game. But two weeks prior to the start of the season? A much higher likelihood of sneaking your guy through waivers unscathed. The Canucks successfully passed goaltender Jacob Markstrom through waivers last season on September 27th using this method, and a month later there were definitely teams in need of a young goaltender who probably wished they grabbed Markstrom while they could.
There are two problems with this method. First is the obvious one, which is that there is still no guarantee that McIlrath clears waivers. You can waive him early in camp, the end of camp, or three weeks into the season. No matter what, there's still a chance you lose him for nothing.
Even if McIlrath does clear waivers, though, and you can successfully send him to the AHL, you're probably sending him back very disgruntled. After three years in the AHL and after concluding a big playoff run last spring playing well in important minutes, the Rangers will have effectively cut McIlrath well before he even had so much as a chance to prove himself the the coaching staff. And McIlrath will realize that he's going to have to battle with Brady Skjei and Chris Summers just to get a few games in the NHL as a call-up over the course of the season. At best, McIlrath returns to Hartford feeling hopeless and cynical. At worst, he sees it as writing on the wall and requests a trade from the organization.
Waive Him Normally
The Rangers could keep McIlrath until the end of the preseason, as they surely would if there was no waiver situation. Maybe there's an injury and McIlrath is needed for the start of the season. Maybe he really turns heads and forces the coaching staff to think hard about keeping him.
Most likely, though, he one of the final cuts, and is put on waivers. Now the Rangers are seriously at risk of losing McIlrath for nothing. At least he was given a legitimate chance and has reason to keep his head up, though. Even still, maybe he feels no ill will but still thinks it's better that he continues his career elsewhere, where he might have a better shot at cracking the lineup.
The Rangers could bypass the entire issue before they're really forced to deal with it by trading McIlrath. No risk of losing him for nothing. No headache to deal with before the start of the season. Even if McIlrath is successfully sent to Hartford and he's content with the situation, it doesn't accomplish too much besides retaining an asset. There are no guarantees there will be a spot for him even two seasons from now, and Hartford's defense is going to be very crowded. Trading McIlrath might be the best move for all parties. It gives McIlrath a fresh start on a team with an opening for him. It gives the Rangers a prospect or draft pick that they have a better chance of properly utilizing. And it gives the likes of Petr Zamorsky and Calle Andersson a chance to play quality minutes in Hartford and develop.
It would be anticlimactic to move McIlrath in a nondescript trade after spending five years developing him and after the great second half of the season he had in Hartford. The return on the trade is what would be the determining factor here. If a team is offering up a third-round pick for McIlrath, then I think the Jeff Gorton needs to hold his nose and swallow that pill. But what if teams are only offering sixth-round picks or a career minor leaguer? At that point, it might be worth it to just take your chances that you can sneak him through waivers.
Trade Kevin Klein
This is certainly the most radical option, but one worth exploring. Kevin Klein is never going to have a better season offensively than he did last season, and as a result his trade value is higher than it ever will be. The Rangers could trade him, which would open up cap space to add a quality forward like Curtis Glencross or Mike Santorelli on a one-year deal, and then use the savings to extend Chris Kreider and/or Kevin Hayes next offseason. Meanwhile, Raphael Diaz and Dylan McIlrath could fight for the Klein's spot, with the loser becoming the seventh defenseman.
Even though Klein is well overpaid for his role, he's still a dependable defenseman. Moving him made a lot of sense if it was necessary to extend Derek Stepan, and it will be almost crucial for next offseason when Kreider, Hayes, Yandle, Miller, and Etem all need extensions. But right now, the Rangers aren't in dire need of cap space. If Klein was traded, and McIlrath showed he isn't ready for the NHL, then the Rangers would seriously be a bind since they'd have no replacement on the right side in Hartford ready to step in besides Chris Summers, who is not an NHL-caliber defenseman. Klein is an overpaid third-pairing defenseman, but at least we know he is that much. There are no promises that McIlrath could replace him.
I don't think there's a "good" option among these for the Rangers. They all have ugly aspects for them and none of them are really a positive outcome. Rather, Jeff Gorton is going to have to decide which among them is the least problematic. If I had to guess, then I believe McIlrath will be put on waivers and the Rangers will just cross their fingers and hope for the best. None of these choices, outside of trading Klein, would surprise me, though. The Derek Stepan contract situation was incredibly important, but I don't think there was ever truly much risk of it going wrong for the Rangers. The upcoming McIlrath problem, in all honesty, probably won't have significant implications long-term. Still, I think it will serve as Jeff Gorton's first real test as general manager in handling a complicated and unfavorable situation.