Along with all the intrigue about the young Rangers forwards during the preseason, the mystery of the last spots on defense had its own narrative.
Coach Alain Vigneault first said he would keep seven blueliners. Then he favored having eight, which is how the Blueshirts began the season. But thinking about the big-picture effects of the salary cap, he recently said seven is the preferred number.
Suddenly, two games into the season, the Rangers are down to six healthy defensemen.
Dan Girardi left Saturday night’s game in St. Louis early in the second period with a hip flexor injury, and Vig neault said it will be “more than day-to-day.”
Meanwhile, defenseman Kevin Klein hasn’t played yet because of back spasms that have not allowed him to skate all week. It was unclear whether the 29-year-old veteran was on the ice Sunday — a day off as the team traveled home — but even if he was, Klein would not have the benefit of a full practice before Monday night’s visit by the San Jose Sharks.
So it’s back to Dylan McIlrath, the man in the middle of the shuffling — and the subject of trade rumors — who likely will be stepping in Monday night after being a healthy scratch for two games. He’ll be playing to stick as a sixth/seventh defenseman when the injuries heal and the ice chips fall where they may.
The 6-5 McIlrath, a first-round draft pick in 2010, played 34 regular-season games and one playoff game in 2015-16 and had two goals and two assists.
Points were never his specialty, all the way back to the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he was prized for his muscle. And part of his value remains in his unerring willingness to stand up for teammates. When Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas blasted rookie Jimmy Vesey face-first into the boards with a hit from behind in an Oct. 3 preseason game, McIlrath skated across the ice right for Gudas and started throwing punches at him.
Adam Clendening, 23, has been playing the right side on the third defense pair with Brady Skjei, and on the second power-play unit. With Girardi and Klein, both righties, hobbled, there’s an opening for McIlrath. Against the Sharks, the top four presumably will be some combination of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Nick Holden and Skjei, unless Clendening moves up and Skjei is joined by McIlrath.
Last season, McIlrath also made the team out of camp. He played 17 games in October and November but only three in December, nine in January, two in February and three in March, when he missed 10 games with a knee injury.
“I know I can play here,” McIlrath said. “I just have to be more consistent.”
How long McIlrath’s stint lasts this time is unknown. But he has another chance to make his case.