Treff: Two Defensemen Key Down The Stretch

The Rangers won the final regular season contest against the Detroit Red Wings in a less than spine tingling 3-2 contest last Saturday. The final score was 3-2, on an outstanding showing by backup goaltender Anti Raanta and a less than frantic game by the very needy Red Wings. Detroit got into the playoffs anyway and will begin their series against Tampa Bay tonight. The Rangers will also begin tonight, against the Penguins, in what should be an epic match-up.

In the final games of the season, several young players got a chance to show that they are ready for the NHL, including two young defensemen, Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath. Two very different type of players, different roles, different skill sets, but both are developing well and could play a big part of the post season and beyond.

The 23 year-old McIlrath was drafted by the Rangers’ ninth overall in the 2010 draft–it was the last time that the Rangers selected that early in the draft (in fact, the Rangers have not had any first round selections since 2012, when they selected Skjei). As a junior blueliner, McIlrath was big and mean, and the Rangers were very anxious to get a crease clearing defenseman. In addition, there was a lot of buzz about Big Mac before the draft–Dallas who were drafting right behind the Blueshirts were reportedly interested–and the Rangers went for him. Never mind that Cam Fowler, a very highly prized offensive defenseman, was still on the board, but at the time the Rangers thought that Michael Del Zotto would be their future power play quarterback, and I digress.

The problem with McIlrath though was that he had some skating issues and could not really play his position very well. To say that he was raw, would be putting it mildly. But he was not expected in the NHL for about four seasons post draft, so there was time to develop him, first in the WHL and then in Hartford.

Fast forward those four years and McIlrath was nowhere near ready. By that time, McIlrath had served as captain of his Traverse City team, the Rangers took him to Europe with the NHL team, and had tried to build his confidence in every way. But McIlrath had sustained a devastating knee injury, which had cost him a good part of the 2012-13 season and there were questions as to whether he would ever fully recover. After starting on the Rangers’ roster at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, two games in, McIlrath was promptly sent back to Hartford.

And that is when somewhat of a miracle happened. The Rangers had very smartly signed veteran defenseman Aaron Johnson, made him Wolf Pack captain, and then paired him to play alongside McIlrath. It took awhile playing with Johnson, but you could hear him instructing McIlrath on the ice during a game, and you could see really improved his game. McIlrath learned positioning and what to do with the puck and without the puck. He anticipated the play much better and chose his spots to fight more judiciously.

It was only one season that Johnson played for Hartford, but it was critical for McIlrath’s development. By the end of last season, McIlrath was consistently making good decisions at the AHL level, and it was clear that he would compete for an NHL roster spot this past fall.

Signed to a one-year contract last summer, McIlrath has been ready for Broadway full-time this year, but only as the team’s seventh defenseman. He was scratched this season more than he played. However, in the last three games of the regular season (after the injuries occurred on the blueline), he played big minutes (including 22:57 on the ice last Saturday against the Red Wings) and played well. McIlrath served up one big hit and was not a liability at all on the right side. He now is able to keep up with the play and distribute the puck.

Is he the terminating crease clearer that the Rangers were hoping for when they drafted him? No, not at this point, but he is a serviceable defensive player, who has made fewer and fewer mistakes as the year has gone on. And, as he continues to develop (McIlrath is still only 23), he should become a regular third pairing defender for the Rangers–one who can hit, fight, and maybe even clear the crease when required.

Brady Skjei is a very different player than McIlrath. Just out of college at the University of Minnesota last spring, Skjei’s rookie pro season has been mostly in a Wolf Pack uniform. He struggled a bit at the beginning of the year keeping up with the pro game–although he had the skating speed, the game was so much faster than in college. He also has a booming shot from the point and he was not using it enough.

As time went on during the 2015-16, Skjei got more comfortable and starting shooting the puck. It made a difference in his game and in the Rangers’ comfort in bringing Skjei up to New York, if necessary. With both Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi out for the end of the regular season, Skjei was recalled for his latest stint with the team on April 5, 2016. His TOI was more than 15 minutes in the three games in which he appeared, including 22:04 against Detroit on Saturday. His 31 shifts this past weekend did not all go smoothly, as he is still learning to play at this level. One particularly difficult shift had Skjei pinching into the offensive zone that led to a two on one for Detroit. Auspiciously, the ensuing Red Wings’ goal was negated after a coach’s challenge, but it was noticeable that Skjei was a little less reckless after that play.

As his head coach, Alain Vigneault, said of Skjei’s play on Saturday, “today he was okay. In some of the other games he played, he made decisions that were more high percentage. But every time we throw him out there … he understands the game better and there is no doubt in my mind that he is a young player that’s got a lot of upside, but he has to go through the process.”

Whether that process includes action in the playoffs will depend on McDonagh’s status and whether Girardi is truly ready to return. However, Skjei should be a regular on the Rangers’ blueline next season. Although the team considers him a two-way blueliner, he really is more of a defensive player, with a big shot. At some point in the future, he could wind up paired with McIlrath, but Skjei has a higher upside than Big Mac. In fact, it is not hard to imagine McDonagh anchoring the first pair and Skjei the second pair of defensemen in the years to come. With McIlrath being the fifth d-man.

Not a bad outcome at all.

About the Author

Leslie Treff

Leslie Treff is a contributor for NY Sports Day, covering NY NHL teams. She has been covering the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils for more than 15 seasons. Leslie is a recognized expert in hockey prospects and has served as a scout for several independent agencies. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, in her former life, Leslie was an attorney in the judiciary in New York City.

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