Thirty-Eight NHL Games.
That is what the New York Rangers have to show for the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. For six-and-a-half years of rigorous development. For a carefully monitored knee rehabilitation. For countless years of defending a controversial draft pick.
Except for maybe a late-round draft pick in a trade, those 38 games - of limited use - appear to be all the Rangers might ever have to show for Dylan McIlrath and everything they've invested in him; at least, according to the New York Post's Larry Brooks.
"The Blueshirts are believed to be seeking a trade partner for McIlrath," Brooks wrote Monday afternoon.
We could rehash for the umpteenth time that there were better players available at the 2010 NHL Draft. Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Nik Bjugstad, arguably Cam Fowler, and so on. That's all irrelevant to evaluating what the Rangers do have in Dylan McIlrath; a 24-year-old, right-handed shot who established himself as a top-pairing AHL defensemen for two seasons before showing signs of potential in his rookie 2015-2016 NHL season.
Draft bias exists in a big way. Players drafted in the first round will be given every chance in the world to succeed. Teams usually will go to seemingly every length possible, to the point of denial, before admitting to being wrong about their top draft picks. This is even staggeringly more true for players with size. Yet here is Dylan McIlrath, just 37 regular season games plus one playoff fixture to his name, on the verge of being unceremoniously jettisoned out of New York. It's hard to understand how and why this situation has presented itself.
When McIlrath played in 2015-2016, he usually performed pretty well. He accumulated a 50% Corsi at 5v5, adjusted for score, which is pretty remarkable given how much the Rangers were out-shot last season. Own The Puck, which regresses stats for teammates, usage, and so on, had McIlrath's possession impact to be that of a legitimate second-pairing defenseman. Or, at the very least, worthy of second-pairing minutes on the Rangers given the alternatives. In fact, when it comes to the Rangers' major issue of bleeding shot attempts last season, Dylan McIlrath was far from the problem. He led the team in Shot Attempts Against/60 last season (via Corsica.Hockey). Put another way, opposing teams had a harder time getting shot attempts off when McIlrath was on the ice than when any other Rangers' defenseman was.
Could this be largely due to playing almost exclusively with Keith Yandle? Possibly. McIlrath may very well be a bad NHL defenseman who happened to look passable when hidden in sheltered minutes alongside one of the best puck-moving defensemen of the last decade. We have no clue what the truth is, because the Rangers' coaching staff had no desire to find out. McIlrath was used in just 34 games plus one playoff game; most due to another defenseman's injury or fatigue. Despite the fact that the defense and penalty kill were in ruins. And he was almost never used in important minutes, while protecting a late lead, for instance, or with another defenseman besides Yandle.
For a team that lacks right-handed defensemen; that lacks young talent; that lacks cheap contracts with cost-controlled years going forward; it would appear that Dylan McIlrath would be the exact kind of player the Rangers have every reason to give a chance to succeed this season. Especially when looking at the circumstances. This is a team that is, by most objective measures, a coin-flip to even make the playoffs. McIlrath's competition is suspect. Nick Holden is 29 years old and completely nondescript. Adam Clendening has been sent packing by four different NHL teams over the last two seasons and is, at best, just as much of a question mark as McIlrath is. It would seem like the perfect circumstances to finally throw McIlrath into the deep end and see if he sinks or swims. No expectations of contending, and it's not as if he's being blocked by obviously superior defensemen whom the Rangers have reasons to commit to.
It all feels incredibly anti-climactic. Why are the Rangers, who have invested the 10th overall pick, over 7 years of scouting and development, and literally millions of dollars, not interested in even seeing their investment play out? Why have they repeatedly shunned him despite not only that investment, but also some very real evidence of him being a capable NHL defenseman? Despite him being their best current bet at developing a homegrown, right-handed defenseman anytime soon? Because of a couple of journeymen on the depth chart? Because of a few bad exhibition games in which the entire defense was underwhelming? Because he does not fit Alain Vigneault's speedy, puck-moving system that somehow still finds room for Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, and Nick Holden; none of whom are speedy nor good puck movers? Because it will save them some cap space for a trading deadline move that they will almost certainly be in no position to make, anyway?
Maybe Dylan McIlrath is not an NHL defenseman. Maybe he is too slow, or not intelligent enough, or not good enough with the puck on his stick. Maybe he is good enough, though. It sure would be nice to find out after all he and the organization have been through together. Sometimes draft picks bust. Sometimes they don't live up to the hype. For whatever reasons, with Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers seem prepared to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.