By Sean Hartnett
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Slow-skating. Injury prone. One-dimensional. A waste of a first-round pick.
These were the criticisms once aimed at Dylan McIlrath. The 23-year-old defenseman has taken these assessments and buried them by putting together a strong preseason.
“I have the belief that I can play a complete game,” McIlrath said in an exclusive interview with WFAN.com. “I don’t worry about what the media or the scouts are saying. I’m just trying to constantly improve. That’s what this whole process has been. Playing in the AHL was great for me, having the chance to work on my skills and getting a lot of ice time.”
Although McIlrath has survived multiple rounds of cuts to remain as one of 25 players on the Rangers’ training-camp roster, his place on the opening-night roster is not secured. Head coach Alain Vigneault stated his preference to carry eight defensemen, but that’s in an ideal world.
Salary-cap limitations will likely force the Rangers to enter the regular season with their six regular defensemen from last season and either McIlrath or experienced blue liner Raphael Diaz as the seventh defenseman. Brady Skjei, Mat Bodie and Chris Summers were assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack’s training camp following Saturday’s 4-3 road victory over the Devils.
McIlrath turned in his best performance of the preseason on Saturday at Prudential Center. The 6-foot-5 defenseman was positionally sound throughout his 19:06 minutes of total ice time, recording three hits and two blocked shots. In the three-on-three overtime demonstration, he made a beeline rush up ice to join Dominic Moore and pulled off a nifty deke, only to be denied by an outstretched Cory Schneider skate.
This moment was proof of McIlrath’s evolving game. To peg him as a lumbering, limited defenseman isn’t fair. He took off like a rocket from the defensive zone to the offensive zone to get into position to receive Moore’s feed.
“I’ve been in the organization for a while, so guys kind of have a feel for how I play,” McIlrath said. “I know what’s expected from me. I’ve had chats with coach Vigneault. He made it pretty clear what he wants to see from me. I’ve just got to go out and prove it. Every exhibition game is a new opportunity.”
Having received rave reviews from coaches following a strong playoffs with the Wolf Pack, McIlrath entered training camp with a fresh sense of optimism. He detailed his offseason preparation.
“I think coming into this camp, I had a lot of confidence just from the way I finished the season,” McIlrath said. “We had a good playoff run and in exit meetings, they told me how happy they were with my play. It’s nice when the coaches have confidence in you.
“In the summer, I went back to my home gym. Obviously, I worked on my skating. I have a good skating coach and have done that the past few summers. I tried to get stronger (and be) best prepared for camp.”
For McIlrath, the time is now. He and Diaz are in direct competition. The evaluation will continue when the Rangers host the rival Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night, and in their final preseason game against the Bruins on Wednesday night at MSG.
McIlrath has proven that there’s more to his game than fisticuffs, physicality and shutdown potential. After being held back by early-career knee troubles, McIlrath was forced to take the slow path.
That path might lead to a full-time job with the Blueshirts.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.