Wednesday, September 28, 2011

McIlrath Should Be An Early Season Roster Option If Staal And/Or Sauer Aren't Ready

The New York Rangers came into training camp with questions to be answered about their defense corps, but all of those questions revolved around who exactly would comprise the third pairing.  Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer were to be the top four and give the Rangers the luxury of having two shutdown pairings to give the opposition nightmares. 

However things have not gone according to plan during training camp with Michael Sauer first having knee tendinitis issues and Monday night injuring his shoulder.  The hope is that the shoulder will only cost Sauer a week and that he can return to preseason action in advance of the regular season opener.  For Marc Staal the issues have revolved around linger headaches caused from a concussion he suffered on February 22 against Carolina.  Staal is said to be improving and the team is hopeful he will fly to Sweden at the end of this week to continue his preparation to be in the lineup Oct. 7. 

The best case scenario is that both Staal and Sauer will be there against the Los Angeles Kings, but what if one or both aren’t ready to play?  Having at minimum Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh as top defenders is still tremendous, but that issues come from others that have to be elevated in the lineup to fill the holes.  Steve Eminger and Michael Del Zotto right now appear to be the third pair if all are healthy, but one or both would have to slide into the a top four spot to make up for whomever is missing. 

As I wrote yesterday, Tim Erixon does not appear ready for the NHL just yet, which leaves Brendan Bell, Stu Bickel, Blake Parlett and Dylan McIlrath as options to open the year.  Bell has been solid in his two appearances, while Bickel would bring some toughness.  Parlett has not played in any preseason games as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered in Traverse City, so it is tough to gauge how effective he could be.  That brings me to Dylan McIlrath.

Coach John Tortorella said the other day that McIlrath is not ready for the NHL, but bringing him to Europe gives them a chance to keep teaching him.  Tortorella is right that the experience is great for McIlrath is being around not only the coaching staff, but learning how to be a professional from the other defenders on the team.  Where I will differ with the impression from Tortorella that this is basically a take the trip before heading back to Juniors trip is that Dylan showed more, at least in his preseason game, than the other candidates did in their outings.

Let me be clear that I am not arguing McIlrath is ready or that he should make the team full time this season.  What I am saying is that if Staal and/or Sauer are unable to go when the Rangers open the season on Oct 7 the organization should not close the door on the idea of letting Dylan play some of his allotted games before sending him back to the WHL.  McIlrath taking a spot that would otherwise be held by Bell or Bickel is certainly not in any way detrimental to the team.  McIlrath has shown tremendous improvement in his skating, gap control and shooting over last year and other than possibly Tim Erixon has the most upside of any of the defensive options. 

Obviously if McIlrath falters, Erixon rises up to claim the spot or Sauer and Staal are both healthy we are having a different conversation in a week.  There is no doubt that McIlrath has more to learn to be NHL ready full-time, but if he gets more opportunities during the European preseason games and shows similar to how he did against New Jersey there is no reason to deny him outright as an option. Let the 19-year-old get a taste of what the NHL is like and make him even hungrier to continue his course of significant improvement from where he was a year ago.