By: Michael Abitabilo
Following their latest round of roster cuts on Sunday, the Rangers are down to 25 players in training camp without any real surprises among them (Jayson Megna notwithstanding). Now, though, with Alain Vigneault having made it clear he intends to break camp with 22 players, he and newly minted General Manager Jeff Gorton have several important decisions to make.
Vigneault has already said he expects the roster to be comprised of two goaltenders, seven defensemen, and 13 forwards. The goaltending spots are set: Anti Raanta will backup Henrik Lundqvist.
On defense, the Rangers’ top six are and have been etched in stone: Ryan McDonagh; Dan Girardi; Marc Staal; Kevin Klein; Keith Yandle; and Dan Boyle (ugh).
The battle for the seventh defense position has, as expected, come down to Dylan McIlrath versus Raphael Diaz. Truth be told, Boyle has been terrible this pre-season – both Diaz and McIlrath have vastly out performed him. But if the Rangers tried to bury Boyle in the minors, his status as an “Over-35” player means his entire $4.5 million cap hit would remain on the books. Under these circumstances, the Rangers would be hard-pressed to keep seven defenseman on the roster while remaining under the salary cap.
So that brings us back to Diaz and McIlrath, an ironically inverted Blueshirt version of David versus Goliath. Much has been written of this year being McIlrath’s last chance to stick with the Rangers. McIlrath can no longer be assigned to the minor leagues without being exposed to waivers, which means every other team in the league would have the opportunity to acquire him and the Rangers would receive nothing in return. Given his age (23), size (6’5, 230 lbs.), toughness (his nickname is the Grim Reaper) and right-handedness (yes), he is all but certain to get scooped up by another team should the Rangers waive him before the season starts.
Despite continued questions over his ability to keep up in Vigneault’s up-tempo system, McIlrath has done just about all he could this pre-season to earn a spot on the roster. In addition to his signature toughness, he has shown poise with the puck and the ability to make the kind of subtle plays to jumpstart the offense that Vigneault emphasizes. Sounds good, right? The problem is that Diaz is a much more natural fit for Vigneault’s system. Diaz – a proven NHL-caliber defenseman – was excellent, if not dominant, in his last pre-season game against the Devils, scoring two goals and showing his potential as an asset on the powerplay. Further, the Rangers knew exactly what they were getting when they re-signed Diaz, who previously played for the Rangers under Vigneault at the end of the 2013-2014 season. One has to wonder why the Rangers would have brought Diaz back in the first place if they did not anticipate him making the team. On the flip side, Diaz was a free agent this summer, meaning any team could have signed him then. The Rangers might think he would go through waivers unclaimed, meaning they would retain his rights while he plays in the American Hockey League. It’s also possible the Rangers signed him merely as a no-risk insurance policy for a subpar McIlrath pre-season, and are perfectly willing to let Diaz get claimed by another team. This might just be wishful thinking, but I think McIlrath gets the spot.
Up front, barring injury, there has never been any real doubt that the following nine forwards would be on the opening night roster: Rick Nash; Derick Brassard; Chris Kreider; Mats Zucarello; Derek Stepan; J.T. Miller; Kevin Hayes; Jesper Fast; and Dominic Moore.
Realistically, then, there were four spots available for the following six players: Emerson Etem; Oscar Lindberg; Tanner Glass; Jarret Stoll; Viktor Stalberg; and Jayson Megna.
Megna is all but certain to be traded or cut, which means one of Etem, Lindberg, Glass, Stoll and Stalberg will be the odd man out.
Free agent signees Stalberg and Stoll have played well in the pre-season and fulfill certain needs – size, physicality and faceoff proficiency among them. It would seem likely both will make the team (despite questions over whether Stoll and/or Dominic Moore will be effective in moving from center to wing).
Lindberg, too, has impressed, while Etem – who will face an uphill battle with the Garden Faithful after being traded for Carl Hagelin – has struggled. Like McIlrath, though, both Etem and Lindberg are 23, meaning they are still young enough to be considered prospects, and likely would be appealing to teams around the league if placed on waivers.
Somewhat unexpectedly, that would seem to leave Tanner Glass on the outside looking in. And while there is some question about whether the Rangers can afford to enter the season without a tough(ish) guy to police the ice and protect their stars, keeping McIlrath around would alleviate that concern and make Glass’s absence much more palatable. Under these circumstances, the Rangers could adjust their lineup based on match-ups, perhaps choosing to play the Grim Reaper over Boyle against some of the bigger, slower, and/or tougher teams in the league. Therefore, I believe Diaz, Megna and Glass will be the final three players cut, and the Rangers 22-man opening night roster will look like this:
- Henrik Lundqvist
- Anti Raanta
- Ryan McDonagh
- Dan Girardi
- Marc Staal
- Kevin Klein
- Keith Yandle
- Dan Boyle
- Dylan McIlrath
- Rick Nash
- Derick Brassard
- Mats Zuccarello
- Chris Kreider
- Derek Stepan
- J.T. Miler
- Viktor Stalberg
- Kevin Hayes
- Jesper Fast
- Dominic Moore
- Jarret Stoll
- Emerson Etem
- Oscar Lindberg
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and watches way too much pre-season hockey.