By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers blueliner Dylan McIlrath served as a reliable presence when called on by head coach Alain Vigneault in his first full NHL season. The strapping 6-foot-5 defenseman skated in 34 regular season games, collecting four points and averaged 14:07 time on ice per game.READ MORE: NYPD Officer Wilbert Mora Remains In Grave Condition At NYU Langone
McIlrath finished with a plus-seven rating, which ranked fifth among NHL rookie defensemen. He completed 29 of 34 games with an even or higher plus/minus rating. Nicknamed “The Undertaker,” McIlrath proved he is more than a bruising checker who could handle himself in scrap. The 24-year-old looked very much like a top-six defenseman who is capable of playing a safe and steady game when matched up against seasoned pros.
“Coming into this year, I was on the outside looking in,” McIlrath said on breakup day. “I had to earn a roster spot. So, if you look at it that way, I feel like I had a successful season personally. Obviously, (the playoff elimination to the Penguins) was a tough end result, but I feel like I needed to get my foot in the door this year. Hopefully, it helps me coming into camp next year, having a sense of confidence coming in here.”
On Friday, McIlrath agreed to a one-year, $800,000 contract to avoid arbitration. He earned $600,000 last season. Even though Keith Yandle has moved on to Florida and Dan Boyle is likely to retire, there’s plenty of competition for the seventh/eighth defensemen spots. Barring an injury or trade – Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Brady Skjei and Nick Holden figure to be the six regular defensemen next season.
This leaves McIlrath fighting it out with free agent signing Adam Clendening, Chris Summers and highly rated prospect Ryan Graves. General manager Jeff Gorton recently stated that Graves could “push some guys” during training camp. Whether or not Graves begins the upcoming season in the NHL, it’s clear the 21-year-old has a bright future ahead of him.
Vigneault tends to favor experience over youth, and there were times when he leaned heavily on aging right-handed defensemen Girardi and Boyle when they appeared to be slowed by injury and/or were struggling last season. McIlrath and Clendening are right-handed and either could spell Girardi next season to keep him fresh. Girardi has logged some hard miles and tends to play a fearless, all-out style, which leads to a pileup of injuries.READ MORE: Ukraine Crisis: Pentagon Puts 8,500 Troops On Heightened Alert To Deploy If Requested By NATO
McIlrath played his best hockey when paired with Yandle. The pair complemented each other well, with Yandle jumping into the attack while McIlrath served as the stay-at-home guy. Rangers fans are pining for a Skjei-McIlrath pairing, but it’s hard to see how McIlrath can break through into the top six on a consistent basis given the current roster situation.
Whether in a Rangers uniform or not, McIlrath wouldn’t look out of place as a bottom-pairing defenseman for a number of NHL teams. If he misses out on the opening night roster, he does have some trade value, and the Rangers could get a useful return from a rival GM seeking a defensive upgrade.
The Rangers also re-signed 24-year-old defenseman Tommy Hughes, who entered the offseason as a restricted free agent. Hughes is a right-hander and skated in 59 games for the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack last season and registered nine points. The Blueshirts also signed 26-year-old free agent forward Josh Jooris on Friday. Jooris spent the past two seasons with the Calgary Flames, recording 37 points in 119 games.
Oscar Lindberg is expected to miss at least the first month of the season due to a bilateral hip labral repair. Alongside Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Tanner Glass, Jooris could compete for a bottom-six forward/penalty-killing role. In his first two NHL seasons, Jooris was only on the ice for 14 shorthanded goals against in 158:44 shorthanded minutes.
The Rangers finished the 2015-16 regular season 26th in the NHL with a 78.2 penalty-killing percentage. Signing up a speedy shorthanded specialist in Grabner as well as Gerbe and Jooris should give the Rangers’ penalty kill units a boost next season.
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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey