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Dylan McIlrath’s Departure Asks More Questions Than It Answers

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NHL: New York Rangers at Winnipeg Jets Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

The Dylan McIlrath saga ended like many long, drawn-out things do: With a flop.

On Tuesday the Rangers alleviated themselves of the McIlrath headache they gave themselves by trading him to Florida for Steven Kampfer and a conditional 7th round pick. As I said on Twitter, pretend the Rangers lost McIlrath on waivers for nothing because that’s essentially the return they got for him.

Let me get a disclaimer out of the way early: By the time the Rangers traded McIlrath they had little choice.

Waiving him was the beginning of the official end. In the event McIlrath didn’t play in 41 NHL games this year he was going to become a UFA over the summer – and assuredly would not have re-signed in New York. That means Jeff Gorton getting ANYTHING (and really he got the barest of bones here, but whatever) is better than nothing.

With that said this trade is indefensible. Not because it happened – because at this point it had to – but because of why it had to happen.

In 2010 the Rangers used a top-10 pick on a guy they shouldn’t have. That’s not his fault, but it added a tag to his ear that he could never shake off. Complicating matters was a freak knee-injury in camp that cost him an entire year of development early in his career. Big defenseman take a long time to develop as is, and losing a year really set him back.

Through all this McIlrath proved he was not just the face-punching enforcer they drafted him to be, but also a competent defenseman. Working with Jeff Beukeboom, McIlrath became a standout for a Hartford Wolf Pack team with few bright spots and completed his game. He was never going to become P.K. Subban but he was something the Rangers could develop and nurture.

He never fit in with Alain Vigneault – despite putting up some of the best possession numbers on the team with Keith Yandle last year. For those who claim McIlrath got a fair shot, the reality that Vigneault scratched McIlrath for half the year in favor for a severely struggling and injured Dan Girardi tells you all you have to know about that. Vigneault didn’t like him and didn’t want him in the lineup. Adam Clendening knows the feeling well, and if you want his thoughts go ask him – you can find him in the press box on game nights.

This is a familiar game the Rangers have played since Vigneault manned the helm. There are players who simply do not have an opportunity to truly make an impact because of his refusal to deviate from veterans. This year’s offense has bucked the trend, but his hand was forced with an explosive preseason that’s carried over into the regular season.

Your issues with the trade should be with the way the final result came to be, rather than where things are right now. I’m not arguing that McIlrath was going to change the world, but with the body of work he put together you can’t tell me he didn’t deserve a shot to prove he was an upgrade over what the Rangers are running out now. As much as the team’s success has quelled talks about the defense, it’s still a monster lurking under the surface waiting to rear its ugly head. Whether or not the offense can suppress that remains to be seen, but I liked the idea of McIlrath being a safety net.

Regardless, the issue stems from the asset management. The asset management from start to finish with McIlrath is indefensible, and it’s not like this is an isolated incident. The Rangers traded Carl Hagelin (without even talking to him about an extension) for a single NHL asset and a chance to move up in the draft (which they screwed up). Then they wasted the single NHL asset they got in return to the tune of trading him for AHL depth after a similar situation to what happened with McIlrath.

The Rangers traded away the farm for Keith Yandle, didn’t utilize him the way they should have, doubled down with him on a Cup run that was 99% fantasy and 1% extreme optimism and then traded him over the summer for a 4th and a 6th round pick after once again NOT TALKING TO HIM ABOUT AN EXTENSION. I’m not saying things could have worked between Hagelin and Yandle financially but not having a discussion with them before making a decision is insane. Want to know who else the Rangers did this with? Anton Stralman – but at least that one hasn’t come back to bite them in the ass. Oh … right …

Mismanaging assets is a huge red flag in a salary cap era. Successful teams find ways to remove dead weight in favor of cheaper youth as often as they can. The Rangers moved in this direction in terms of the forwards and totally backed off this ideology with the defense. McIlrath is only the most recent casualty – and Clendening might be next.

To turn a former top-10 pick who is just 23-years-old for an AHL defenseman and a conditional 7th round pick tells you all you need to know. No, there was no NHL interest in him, but there was no NHL interest because the Rangers themselves couldn’t be bothered to be interested in him. Defend their right to feel that way all you want, but if you do so at least concede they gave him no real chance to prove himself.

I will remind all of you who will come out the woodwork to tell me this isn’t a big deal because McIlrath isn’t good that this has nothing to do with how good McIlrath currently is. He could be a solid defenseman for the Rangers (well, now Florida), but that’s not the point. The point is that this can happen to anyone, and already has. The point is that even if McIlrath isn’t a big deal maybe the next person will be. Aside from the players/situations above, Hayes came dangerous close to being given up on last year and this summer. Anthony Duclair sat in favor of lesser players and was eventually traded away. Lee Stempniak was treated similarly. These aren’t isolated incidents.

The one difference right now is Gorton. Once again, he gets a pass here because it’s not really his place to make roster calls and he didn’t have much of a choice to do anything else than trade McIlrath.

Still, moving McIlrath asks far more questions than it answers.