By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers are on the clock to submit a salary cap-compliant, 23-man roster by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Head coach Alain Vigneault indicated Monday that he believes the Blueshirts will open the regular season with seven defensemen due to cap implications – meaning that a roster move is forthcoming.
With a current roster of 24 players, center Oscar Lindberg will begin the season on the injured reserve as he recovers from offseason hip surgery. According to Vigneault, the 24-year-old Swede is two to four weeks away from being ready to return to game action. Lindberg was cleared for contact Monday.
Once Lindberg is officially placed on the IR and the roster is trimmed to 23, the Rangers will still need to do some maneuvering. Eight defensemen – Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Adam Clendening, Kevin Klein, Nick Holden and Dylan McIlrath -- will need to be cut down to seven blue liners.
Clendening's puck-moving prowess and creativity on the power play means he's a lock to make the opening night roster. His abilities mesh nicely with Vigneault's up-tempo system, and he can help fill a void now that offense-generating defenseman Keith Yandle plies his trade in Florida and longtime point-getting blue liner Dan Boyle has retired.
One way of alleviating the situation would be sending Skjei to the Hartford Wolf Pack on a temporary demotion. Skjei is the only defenseman on the roster who does not require waivers to be sent to the AHL. Regardless of whether the 22-year-old Minnesotan begins this season in the NHL, he will be a crucial member of the Rangers for years to come and is expected to play a significant role this season.
Vigneault showed how much he trusted Skjei while McDonagh missed the beginning of the last season's playoffs due to a right hand injury. While McDonagh was out for games 1 and 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Skjei logged close to 18 minutes per game on the ice during the first two contests of the series and received big minutes on the power play and penalty kill.
Despite his inexperience, Skjei was one of the few bright spots for the Rangers during a tough five-game exit to the rival Pens. He thrived against tough matchups and looked comfortable playing either side of defense.
Skjei has not played his best hockey this preseason, but he clearly possesses the two-way ability to be a key member of the Rangers right now. If the Rangers feel he is best served not missing a beat at the NHL level, then trading McIlrath might be the best route.
The 24-year-old has proven to be much more than a hard-hitting defenseman who can handle himself in a scrap, and teams around the league have noticed. It's unlikely that he would clear waivers, and the Rangers would rather receive some kind of compensation in return via a trade instead of the possibility losing him for nothing by unsuccessfully attempting to slide him to the AHL through waivers.
While McIlrath hasn't done anything wrong to lose his place on the roster, he could be the casualty due to the unfortunate circumstances of roster cutdowns and the cap crunch. He signed a one-year, $800,000 contract after skating in 34 regular season games for the Blueshirts last season.
"There's no doubt that there's an improvement," Vigneault said on Sept. 29. "You can tell Dylan's more confident in his abilities. He's trying to make plays defensively. He's using his long reach and strength, and he has to continue that moving forward."
Sometimes tough hockey decisions have to be made. McIlrath's days as a Ranger appear to be numbered, and that's unfortunate because he played well in spots he was given.
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