Since the day the New York Rangers drafted him with the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, New York has had a Dylan McIlrath problem.
It started with the misguided selection itself, as the Rangers foolishly chose size over skill in what had become a trend. The problem continued into a few ugly seasons in the minors, until McIlrath looked to have broken free from his struggles.
However, lingering issues remain.
Going back to last season, Alain Vigneault has been criticized for his defensemen deployment, and that hasn’t changed so far this season. McIlrath has been stuck behind inferior veterans Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, creating a situation where the youngster may feel he needs to create a niche to find his way into the lineup. Vigneault hasn’t given McIlrath many chances to succeed, and he hasn’t done himself any favors, constantly taking unnecessary roughing or instigating penalties.
If popular theory is correct, the issues all intertwine. Girardi and Staal playing over McIlrath has Vigneault keeping him out of the lineup, leading to McIlrath feeling pressured into forming a niche to impress Vigneault, resulting in Vigneault remaining unimpressed and the Rangers suffering as a whole.
McIlrath’s attempted niche, fighting, has cost the Rangers many times before and will likely continue to do so. Handing opposing teams power plays consistently is not something quality NHL players do, but it does remain possible McIlrath feels he must be an enforcer to catch Vigneault’s attention and enter the lineup.
While it may be popular to pin the blame for McIlrath’s struggles on Vigneault’s deployment, there is another party at fault here — McIlrath himself.
On Jan. 14, 2016, the Rangers lost to the Islanders 3-1. The Rangers held a 1-0 lead in the third period when McIlrath took an unnecessary roughing penalty to give the Islanders a power play. The Islanders scored on the ensuing man advantage, gained momentum, and won the game.
Alain Vigneault was asked about the penalty after the game, and his reply doesn’t give much weight to the popular opinion.
“Obviously their player comes in and pokes Hank and then he came in and he got one shot, and the ref I think allowed that one shot but he might have been a little overzealous there and took another one that the ref didn’t like and that got us shorthanded. Probably a little overexcited and did something that he hopefully won’t do in the future.”
Vigneault didn’t support the roughhousing, nor did he absolve McIlrath of wrongdoing for the penalty. He did not in any way encourage McIlrath’s behavior, so the push to be an enforcer-type doesn’t seem to be coming from the coach.
In fact, Vigneault has consistently spoken about McIlrath’s need to be a defensive defenseman that uses his body to close off lanes. In September, he whistled to the familiar tune.
“If he’s going to play regular minutes at this level, he’s going to be a defensive-type defenseman,” Vigneault said. “That’s a guy that’s got good gap, doesn’t get beat one-on-one, whether that be on the rush or in the corner. When he gets an opportunity to beat the first forechecker, he can make a good first pass and get the puck out of our end. That’s how [McIlrath] can contribute on a good team.”
Notice Vigneault doesn’t mention physical play at all. Vigneault spoke about the areas in which McIlrath could improve in, giving the young defenseman a guideline to enter the lineup.
It appears McIlrath hasn’t learned a thing, however. In the preseason he took a penalty for jumping into a scrum, then against the San Jose Sharks on Monday, he took an extra two minutes for roughing after going after Tomas Hertl for a bump on Antti Raanta. He appeared to be pulling his punches, but he must know better by now than to go after Hertl in that situation.
Perhaps it wasn’t the right call, but the Sharks still got a power play as a result, and McIlrath was then glued to the bench for the third period. Vigneault’s response following the penalty lends itself to the theory that he does not support his enforcing-type play.
The conclusion here is that it certainly is possible Dylan McIlrath feels he must fill the enforcer on defense niche in order to stay in the lineup, but that does not make his consistently poor penalties acceptable.
It is also entirely possible that McIlrath feels this way as a result of Vigneault benching him for inferior defensemen, but that again doesn’t justify his rash actions.
There appears to be a communication issue here, and no one appears to understand who McIlrath actually is.
McIlrath must learn that he is a defensive defenseman, not an enforcer, while Vigneault must understand McIlrath is more talented than many of the players earning starts.
Until those conclusions are reached, the Rangers can expect McIlrath to continue to take costly penalties when he is in the lineup, which means Vigneault will continue to keep him out of the lineup.
Unless the communication changes, considering it’s unlikely the Rangers dump their head coach for a defenseman with 38 games of NHL experience, the best idea for all parties involved would be to trade McIlrath to a team that can utilize him correctly.
The problem would be solved, the Rangers could get a fine piece back, and McIlrath can start with a clean slate.