By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Tuesday’s 4-2 home victory over the Edmonton Oilers was proof that the Rangers possess two blue-line gems in Dylan McIlrath and Brady Skjei. At some point, the pair of former first-round picks is going to play a major role for the Blueshirts.
Together, the duo played a role in snapping the Rangers’ three-game losing streak and offered a glimpse of what the future holds. It was if Alain Vigneault stepped in Doc Brown’s DeLoren to get a peek. McIlrath continued to show why he deserves to remain in the lineup when the Blueshirts return to full health, and Skjei certainly didn’t look out of place, even without the benefit of participating in Tuesday’s morning skate.
“I think any team in today’s NHL needs young players to step in and be able to contribute – not just play a few minutes, but important minutes at important times,” Vigneault said. “I thought for Brady’s first game, considering the stage, I thought he did a good job. Obviously, he had that turnover in the second period there, but I am assuming that won’t be his last mistake in the league. I am also assuming he’s going to make a lot of good plays. For Dylan, I thought he played a good, strong game, with the puck and without the puck.”
With each passing game, McIlrath looks more and more like a seasoned pro. The 23-year-old is known for playing a physical, intimidating style – but his intelligence in the defensive end is growing. You can see him taking smart angles and using his strength effectively. Another side of his game that’s improving is his offensive aptitude. McIlrath is making crisp breakout passes, and as evidenced on his second-period go-ahead goal, he packs a heavy shot.
“Dylan, that shot of his – it’s a huge strength of his,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “He’s been getting close the last few games of finding one. It’s great to see him rewarded here tonight for strong play, and you could see him gaining a lot more confidence with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, so that’s a great sign.”
Alternate captain Marc Staal has seen consistency from McIlrath game to game.
“He’s been solid all year long,” he said. “Every time he’s gotten an opportunity to play, he’s played great. Tonight was no different. You saw it again. It was the icing on the cake for him to get his first goal. It’s fun to watch. He has a heavy shot when he gets it off.”
Vigneault views the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder as a defense-first blueliner, first and foremost.
“I don’t picture him being an offensive defenseman,” Vigneault said. “I picture him being a good two-way defenseman that plays a physical brand of hockey. That’s what I’ve seen. He’s got a great shot from the point. He got a great screen from Tanner (Glass) there. Hopefully, we’ll see more than that.”
Skjei fared well in his NHL debut. Aside from a second-period turnover that allowed Oilers star Jordan Eberle to score a breakaway goal, he looked the part. The 21-year-old showed a lot of poise and intelligence, making subtle plays all over the ice.
“You can see what his strengths are,” McDonagh said. “He’s very poised with the puck, (and is) good anticipating the next play. It’s good to see him keep it simple for the most part and utilize his strengths.”
Vigneault had no qualms pairing up the duo on the penalty kill while Staal was sitting in the box during the third period. McIlrath logged 4:42 of his 18:38 TOI on the penalty kill, while Skjei skated for 2:15 shorthanded minutes and 14:54 TOI.
“They got their feet wet early,” Staal said. “They were good. We got better on the penalty kill as the game went on.”
With the status of Kevin Klein (strained oblique) and Dan Girardi (swollen knee) uncertain, there’s a chance McIlrath and Skjei remain in the lineup for Thursday’s game in Minnesota. The Rangers have a practice scheduled for noon Wednesday in Greenburgh, so we’ll know more about their availability then. If Skjei does suit up against the Wild, it would be in front of a large gathering of family and friends at Xcel Energy Center.
Going forward, Skjei obviously needs to be playing. Unless the Rangers plan on moving one of their veteran defensemen or a long-term injury strikes, he’s best served getting consistent AHL minutes. But make no mistake, he’s going to be a very important player for the Rangers down the road.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.