Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rookie Watch: Can Dylan McIlrath Force His Way To Broadway Ahead of Schedule?

The New York Rangers had tremendous success during the 2010-11 season incorporating rookies into their lineup and having those players perform at a very high level.  It is rare that a team can have significant contributions from three or four rookies in a season and still be a very competitive overall.  New York had that last season with Derek Stepan and Michael Sauer performing at very high levels for the entire season, while Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello also played well in their split seasons between the AHL and NHL.
After a season like that it would be understandable for an organization to lack talented players to step in as rookies the following season.  The Rangers do not have that problem and over the course of the next week we are going to look at some of the rookies that have a chance to make an impact on the Rangers during the 2011-12 season, whether it be in full or partial season duty.  Already this week there was an examination of Carl Hagelin and Tim Erixon in terms of making the team and their impact.   Now the focus shifts to 2010 first round draft pick Dylan McIlrath.

When McIlrath was chosen 10th overall many, including myself, were shocked at the move both for the fact the Rangers left the more highly touted Cam Fowler on the board and because they took what most draft experts felt was a reach that high.  For the Rangers the selection of McIlrath was as much of a statement on the culture of the team they want as it was on the talent he possesses.  The Rangers need to be a tougher team and McIlrath brings tremendous toughness and an intimidation factor to the table that the team did not have at the time.  The development of Michael Sauer last season helped that, but the Rangers are still low on defenders willing to clear the crease and be able to strike fear in the opposition physically, which creates an opening for McIlrath to make the squad this year.
The prevailing thought on McIlrath is that he is still at least one year away from pushing for an NHL roster spot.  Though if the Rangers Prospect Development Camp is any indication, then McIlrath has every intention of trying to change that timeline.  His improved skating and shot were some of the most discussed things to come out of the week while he still brought the presence defensively which makes him valuable.  Obviously what went on has to be taken with a grain of salt as it was against other young players and not against NHL quality players like those he will face in training camp.   Having the level he played at during development camp translate to full training camp would give him a shot at making the club.   The Rangers have shown, especially on defense, that if a player shows they are ready for the NHL, then they will get a shot regardless of their age.  The team has also had young players in each of the last two seasons change the expected timelines on their NHL arrivals by performing at high levels during camp.
The biggest hurdle for McIlrath to make the team come from the numbers on defense where four spots are locked up, two more have very good young players likely to make the team and Steve Eminger is rumored to be coming back as a 6/7 option.  If all else is equal, then the Rangers would likely send McIlrath back to Juniors to get another year of development instead of keeping him in the NHL and burning  a contract year for someone like Del Zotto or Erixon in the minors.
The other thing that works against McIlrath might be the fact that rushing Del Zotto has had mixed results for the Rangers.  In his first year Del Zotto showed the offensive skills that had the Rangers keep him around.  In his second year, however, he struggled on both ends and eventually ended up being sent to the minors to find his game and confidence.  It goes without question that each player is different and the successes and failures of Del Zotto when he was brought into the NHL as a 19-year-old should not impact what happens with McIlrath, but in some respects it has to be there in part.
McIlrath is still a longshot to make the team this season, but if he can translate the performance against his fellow prospects last month to training camp this fall it is not out of the question that the  6-foot-4. 214 pound “truck” could roll into Broadway earlier than expected.