This is the Keep Or Dump story for McIlrath, wrapped into a bigger story about him.
The Rangers had the ability to spray their needs across the board. Did they need to add a center to the fold? A defenseman who can move the puck? A sniping winger?
Remember the time, too. Michael Del Zotto had just come off a 37-point rookie season on the blue line. The Rangers were without Ryan McDonagh at the draft (he had been acquired a year before, but was still in Hartford), Chris Drury's career was quickly spiraling towards its end, Marian Gaborik had scored 42 goals and Vinny Prospal was a 58-point player. It was a much different time.
Hindsight is 20-20. That's a HUGE part of these next few paragraphs so keep that in mind.
The overall expectation was the Rangers were in the market for a defenseman. The thought process at the time was that if Cam Fowler was available (and he ended up being on the board when Glen Sather stepped to the podium) he'd be the guy. If not, the Rangers were also linked to Brandon Gormley.
This is where that hindsight is 20-20 thing comes in. Say the Rangers would have picked Gormley -- apparently the Rangers weren't very high on any of the defenseman coming out of the QMJHL that year. In the moment it would have been a super defensible pick and probably looked at as a huge success. Gormley played in just 58 NHL games and is currently plying his trade in the AHL at 24. His NHL future is in doubt, and today that pick would be looked at as a bust.
Fowler was really the biggest "HOW DID THEY NOT PICK HIM???" guy at the time of the draft. And while Fowler has certainly had an impact with Anaheim he hasn't set the world on fire, either.
McIlrath was screwed in terms of fan support from the get-go for three reasons that were entirely out of his control:
1) He was a huge reach at a position in the draft where you shouldn't be reaching. Although to be fair, reports were Dallas -- who picked 11th -- were gunning for McIlrath, so that might be why the Rangers didn't trade down.
2) The Rangers left big name players on the board to get him (this is very similar to the Ryan Gropp situation this year).
3) The biggest reason, however, was the immense growth and explosion of Vladimir Tarasenko (who had a very Pavel Buchnevich like rise in the KHL before coming over to the NHL). McIlrath and Tarasenko are always linked in the "what if the Rangers had taken him instead of McIlrath" realm which isn't fair.
It also didn't help that big defenseman -- who already take longer to develop -- lost a full year of development to a freak knee injury with then-prospect Kyle Jean in camp.
Flash forward to this past summer. McIlrath, who would have needed to pass through waivers if he was sent down, made the team out of camp. Whether it was because the Rangers were worried they would lose him for nothing (a reasonable concern) or if he actually impressed them enough was up for debate. In fact, I even speculated whether or not the Rangers were going to move McIlrath to avoid that very problem:
The second problem is a bigger issue for McIlrath, though, and that issue is Brady Skjei. For as good as McIlrath was this year, Skjei is better -- and to be fair he always has been. Skjei's ceiling is much higher than McIlrath's will ever be and he's widely assumed to be NHL ready right now. That makes Skjei a better short and long term option for the team in almost all respects.
Now, it's very likely the Rangers could want Skjei to keep getting top-line minutes in the AHL if there's not enough of a role for him in New York, especially if they keep seven defenseman on the roster. But having McIlrath sit in that seventh role doesn't make much sense, either, and that's even if he makes the team out of camp.
Then something really cool happened. When McIlrath did get into game action he was good. As in, actually really impressive on a level I'm not sure many people expected.
Which is why it was so insane that Alain Vigneault never found a real home for McIlrath in the lineup. Not only was McIlrath better than both Dan Girardi and Marc Staal (even on games where he had sat for a month with no action), he could have at the very least been used to give rest to an injured and ageing Girardi, a declining Staal or an ageing Dan Boyle. Instead, Vigneault opted to staple McIlrath to the press box, and eventually give his role to Brady Skjei -- who was spectacular in the playoffs, it should be noted -- when Ryan McDonagh went down.
To me, the Rangers' re-branding needs to start with their defense. Removing Staal and Girardi and replacing them with Skjei and McIlrath isn't only the easiest option, it's also the cheapest. McIlrath signed his qualifying offer last year so he is arbitration eligible this summer, but at the most he stands to make under a million dollars. Again: at the most.
This isn't a call to keep McIlrath because of his toughness. It's a great perk to have, but only when it comes attached to someone who can actually play hockey. Yeah, there's still those moments when you want someone on your bench who can send a (clean) message, but they're far and few between, honestly. How much they impact the game can also be questioned.
McIlrath, in just 35 games, was a 51.06 corsi for % at even strength. He was a -1.88% in offensive zone starts rel, and was a +2 in scoring chances differential. When you looked at the Rangers defense and saw all the problems, McIlrath never caught your eye -- despite Vigneault treating him like a player he couldn't trust on the back end.
Why? We'll never know. The subjective wheel of justice reared its ugly head early and often this year, with no one taking a bigger hit than McIlrath. Rather than allowing the Rangers a full look (plus a year of development) for their big, young defenseman, they wasted the opportunity and now are dealing with something of a question mark.
Money isn't going to be an issue with him returning. Neither is talent -- although that hasn't stopped Vigneault from looking him over before.
Either way, he needs to be given a chance to be a part of this team's future. Even over older "reliable" Vigneault veterans.