New York Rangers, Mats Zuccarello
Photo by Bergen Record

In tonight’s night’s chapter of the Battle of New York, New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault should make a statement with Dylan McIlrath.

By Patrick Comia

If toughness is needed, then the answer should be in the form of Dylan McIlrath.

Head coach Alain Vigneault has only used the 6’5 rookie defenseman a little more than a handful of games this season. Much to the delight of Rangers fans, he has not disappointed one iota.

In previous seasons, he was seen as a liability: making ill-advised puck decisions, not being responsible in his defensive role, and taking inopportune penalties. He was quickly earning the label of “bust”, after being thought highly of in his 2010 NHL Entry Draft selection (10th overall by the New York Rangers).

The only thing he was good at was fighting, and who could forget that boyish image against the Calgary Flames two years ago.

He never backed down to the veteran defenseman Brian McGrattan that game, despite taking some heavy punishment. But, McIlrath never looked fazed, and earned the respect of so many that were witness to the bout, including McGrattan.

However, he never made a lasting impression to stay with the team and was demoted to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL.

McIlrath needed to be something other than a prize fighter, evolve his game into something more, and become an asset rather than a liability.

With the help of assistant coach and former Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukeboom in Hartford, McIlrath may have found the keys to sustaining his career with the Rangers and NHL. And it was needed for him. Entering this season, he was extended a one-year contract this offseason, signaling this is it.

Make it or break it.

With that ultimatum, McIlrath showed the coaching staff that he belongs in New York by displaying a sound defensive game that didn’t require him to run wreck loose up and down the ice.

This season, Vigneault has used him in matchups, where toughness was warranted (i.e. Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers). And toughness he got, but not in the way you would have thought. It was a controlled chaos from McIlrath.

When fists were needed, he provided. He stood up for Derek Stepan in Boston, after taking a borderline late-hit from Burins forward Matt Beleskey.

Almost immediately, the Undertaker, as was his nickname with the Wolf Pack, intervened and made Beleskey answer for his crimes. Despite being penalized for 17 minutes, it was a necessary evil.

The following game against the Flyers, McIlrath stirred up the masses by laying a punishing check on defenseman Nick Schultz, pinching down to the half-boards to keep the puck in the offensive zone.

This time it was the Rangers defenseman being the aggressor and having to answer for his actions on the ice with Luke Schenn. That may have been a mistake cause the Flyers defenseman got his justice served back to him. McIlrath may have just gone ahead with Aaron Rodger’s “Discount Double-Check” gesture, as he skated to the penalty box.

But, that’s where we have seen him mature and focus on what’s happening in the game, not what’s outside of it.

Remember that part about McIlrath needing “…needing to be something other a prize fighter”?

Well, he has a good wrist shot from the blue line that could use more time on the ice. It’s a strong shot that keeps the play in the offensive zone and creates opportunities. Also, he is distributing the puck with very few errors. His possession numbers when he is on the ice is a little below 50%, but that’s second behind Keith Yandle for the entire team.

Bottom line, if the Rangers need to make a statement in tonight’s rivalry game with the New York Islanders, include McIlrath in your plans.

Especially against that physical fourth line of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Casey Cizikas, the Rangers will need every man on deck.

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I'm a blogger trying to make it in this world. Have been, and always will be, a fan of the NYR and NYG. Writing for the New Jersey Devils cause, well, someone has to do it!