By Sean Hartnett
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Going into the 2015 preseason, Dylan McIlrath and Oscar Lindberg were under pressure to prove they belonged in the NHL. It was a show-me situation for the youngsters as each would have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL.
That won’t be happening. Lindberg and McIlrath excelled throughout the preseason, making the Rangers’ final roster cutdown a fairly straightforward decision.
The Rangers are currently carrying 25 players and will likely trim their roster to 22 in the near future. NHL clubs are required to set their regular-season rosters to a maximum of 23 on Monday.
Head coach Alain Vigneault, general manager Jeff Gorton and key members of the Rangers’ brain trust will meet as a group on Thursday and put their heads together to determine final cuts.
“We’re going to sleep on it tonight, meet tomorrow and make those decisions after,” Vigneault said after the Rangers closed out the preseason with a 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins. “We’ve got until Monday before we submit our lineups so I’m not exactly sure what Jeff is going to want to do.”
When Vigneault was asked directly about the possibility of trimming the roster before Friday’s 11 a.m. practice, he nodded and said: “Yeah, yeah. This time I’m not sure.”
The Rangers need to trim one defenseman and two forwards to get down to 22. McIlrath, 23, has outplayed veteran blueliner Raphael Diaz, pushing himself into position as the clear favorite to make the opening-night roster as the seventh defenseman.
Once considered to be a limited as a player and only valuable as a pugilist, McIlrath has improved his skating stride and decision making, and has offered evidence of shutdown potential.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has become an admirer of McIlrath’s work ethic and growing game. After Bruins forward Tyler Randell appeared to put a shoulder into Lundqvist’s helmet, McIlrath stood up for “the King” by dropping the gloves enthusiastically with Randell.
“I think Mac’s been playing great,” Lundqvist said. “He’s a guy that can do a lot of different things. Stepping in and taking care of business sometimes, he can do that as well. I like the way he plays. He plays hard, he works hard and I think he’s improved his game a lot. It’s fun to watch.”
Keeping both defensemen would put a squeeze on the Rangers’ salary cap situation. Vigneault said earlier this week the Rangers expected to be right against the $71.4 million maximum threshold.
Lindberg secured his spot on the roster fairly early into the preseason. Before Wednesday’s game, the 23-year-old forward received the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award for top rookie at training camp.
“Obviously, I was happy to hear that,” Lindberg said. “I was honored and that’s proof that you’ve done something good during the preseason.”
The Swede was a unanimous winner after impressing all preseason with his on-ice smarts, versatility and effective two-way play.
“I think it started out good with the first game here in the Garden and I thought I played well the whole preseason,” Lindberg said. “I think I learned a lot. I felt good the whole preseason.”
Bottom-six forward Jarret Stoll has proven he’s still an elite faceoff man and a dependable two-way forward that can play all three forward positions. Vigneault has continually praised Viktor Stalberg’s play and desire.
While some reporters have questioned Emerson Etem’s chances of sticking the Rangers, it would be surprising for the Blueshirts to give up on the player who was the centerpiece of the Carl Hagelin trade. The Rangers aren’t a foolish organization. They’re not going to expose Etem to waivers. The high-potential winger would be claimed in an instant.
Forward Jayson Megna did not play in either of the Rangers’ final two preseason games, so the writing is on the wall. Meanwhile, Tanner Glass’ future is murky. It’s possible that Gorton could work out a trade to free the Rangers of Glass’ ludicrous contract. He has two years remaining on the three-year deal Glass signed last summer at an annual cap charge of $1.45 million.
Although Glass’ contract is considered one of the worst in the NHL, Gorton might find a taker. There’s still a few old-school teams that believe in the value of carrying an enforcer of Glass’ ilk. If the Rangers can’t find a taker, Glass would need to clear waivers to be sent to AHL Hartford. Should Glass go unclaimed and wind up in Hartford, the Rangers would save $950,000 in cap space.
Glass, Megna and Diaz look like the three players that probably won’t be with the Rangers when they open the regular season on Oct. 7 in Chicago.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey