It was a gorgeous evening in LA on June 25, 2010. Not too hot, a slight breeze and excitement in the air. This was NHL draft day, and it was the first time the Kings were hosting the two-day event.
The Rangers brass was excited too, looking forward to this draft, particularly. They had the tenth overall pick in the draft– the only upside to the team finishing the regular season with a record of 38-33-11–and they were pretty sure that they were going to be able to get their man. They knew that Dallas wanted him too, but the Stars were picking behind the Rangers, so New York was golden.
Their man was defenseman, Dylan McIlrath–the 6’4″, 210 pound, Winnipeg native. He was only ranked 17th among North American skaters in the final 2010 NHL Central Scouting rankings (up from 27th at mid-term), but he was nothing like any other prospect in the Rangers organization. The scouting report on McIlrath was that he was big and tough, delivered big hits, and could clear the front of the net. And he did very well at interview portion of the Combine in Toronto–he was a character kid.
During the season before the draft, McIlrath had carried a plus 20 rating for the Moose Jaw Warriors, and had been voted the most improved player on the team for the second straight year. And at the CHL Top Prospects Game, he finished second in the hardest shot event–slapping the puck at 91.8 miles per hour.
At the time, Gordie Clark, Rangers Director of Player Personnel, said of McIlrath, “He understands defense, protects the front of the net, and uses his reach and mobility to his advantage. His size and strength are impressive. Opposing players will not like playing against him.”
The picture taken on the stage that night shows McIlrath towering over Clark and Jeff Gorton, who was at that time Assistant Director for Player Personnel. With Dylan’s arms around both of them, it probably was the happiest moment that the young defenseman and the Rangers shared in the six years that McIlrath has been with the organization.
So what happened? How did McIlrath go from being the darling of the organization to being exposed on waivers yesterday? And why did the team choose to waive McIlrath rather than put Josh Jooris (who will be out 3-4 weeks with a shoulder separation) on IR?
First, lets state clearly that the Rangers have tried to trade McIlrath and could not get anything back that was worthwhile. And believe me when I say that the powers that be were pretty sure that he was not going to be claimed by another team before noon today.
But make no mistake about it, although Head Coach Alain Vigneault was talking today about certain skills that the big defenseman still needed to improve, it is clear that McIlrath’s future is not here in New York. What value McIlrath does have, though, is on the other side of waivers–especially as part of a bigger trade.
It is no secret that the Rangers are in on the negotiations with Winnipeg for Jacob Trouba–who is himself a right-handed defenseman. And it also is no secret that the Jets are looking for a left-handed young defenseman in return. The Rangers have two possible defensemen (Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves) that are likely of interest to the Jets. But that would not be enough in a deal for Trouba. Maybe McIlrath is a piece of this trade (a minor piece). There is one more piece that would have to be included, because, the current three million that the Rangers have in cap space will not be enough to sign Trouba. And because Winnipeg would want more. Its not clear right now who that would be, but the Rangers are probably short about $2 million in cap space to make this deal.
But going back to McIlrath, it is unfortunate what happened between him and the Rangers.
Its not for lack of trying on either side. McIlrath is charming and has good character. And he works hard. But he just cannot move the puck in a way that will make him effective on the current Rangers team. The Rangers tried too. They worked with Dylan–they signed him early to give him confidence, he was named captain of the Traverse City team of prospects in 2011, and then took McIlrath to Europe with the Rangers to start the NHL season that fall.
But success is not just based on the player and the team’s efforts. The sad reality is that Dylan was injured at a critical time, and then the game changed around him. In Development Camp during the summer of 2012, he tore up his knee in a collision with forward Kyle Jean. Surgery followed and McIlrath was out for most of the 2012-13 season. It went from bad to worse, when the Rangers decided to fire Head Coach John Tortorella in the Spring of 2013. Tortorella really liked toughness, but Vigneault preferred more of a skill game, than having a lunch-pail team. And the truth was, the whole game was changing. There was less use for big, tough guys who were not good puck movers.
So, McIlrath then spent two years in the AHL and last season he sat on the Rangers bench for most of the year. He eventually played in 34 games, and was adequate, at best.
This year, there looked to be room for Dylan on the NHL roster. With two right-handed defensemen ahead of him, he could possibly have been the third-pairing right-side guy. But he just did not impress enough. So, McIlrath was the eighth defenseman, and except for one game, he was not playing at all.
Despite our assessment that McIlrath is a borderline NHL defenseman, he might be able to be a serviceable third-pairing or seventh defenseman on some other team in the league. And that is what makes the Rangers move with McIlrath over the last two days so interesting. So despite fan concerns otherwise, this move was not asset mismanagement. Waiving McIlrath was exactly the opposite. Dylan will be moving shortly. The question is where?