The Undertaker. It seems fitting that what feels like the second obituary of this young blog is about the Undertaker. As the final hours tick down on his time with the Rangers, either to be claimed on waivers or demoted to the Wolf Pack (we will find out at noon which one it is), I just want to reflect on his time in our collective conscious.
As far as I can tell, the name “Undertaker” came from a scout while he was still playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors. Big, strong, tough as nails, the Winnipeg, Manitoba native was a physical force in the WHL. It led to him being drafted in the first round, 10th overall, by the New York Rangers in 2010, despite the overwhelming consensus at the time suggesting Cam Fowler was the correct choice (for the record, the correct choice would have been Vladimir Tarasenko, taken 6 picks later). Whether it be a knee injury suffered early in his time as a prospect or whether it was the concerns about his skating and skills being legitimate, McIlrath just never turned into what the Rangers hoped he would be. On Thursday, after spending the early part of the 2016-2017 season as the team’s 8th defenseman, he was waived to be demoted to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL.
When he was drafted, I absolutely despised the pick. I had ranked 15 players that year and McIlrath wasn’t even on my radar as someone to even remotely consider. Big, slow, and not much offensive upside in a league where the premium was now being put on skating and puck possession. Even his facepunching skills were being phased out of the game. It was just all wrong. The thinking was that we had gone for offensive defensemen in 2006 (Bobby Sanguinetti) and 2008 (Michael Del Zotto), so taking a third would be a waste, while “crease clearing defenseman” was an organizational need. Well, Sanguinetti was already well on his way to being a bust at the time, Del Zotto would flameout just a couple of years later, and pure “crease clearing defenseman” isn’t a role in the NHL anymore. And even if Sanguinetti and Del Zotto both were superstars, why not take another puck mover so we could deal from our depth to fill organization needs, or, more importantly, fill roster spots with players on cheap contracts. The pick was just bad to me on so many levels.
He suffered a serious injury (dislocated knee cap) during the 2012 prospect development camp after a collision with Kyle Jean. It cost him half a season. Some argue that the knee injury is what held him back. I am sure that it didn’t help his development, but the long term effects I think are overstated. He just wasn’t ever going to be a good skater. That was the scouting report. It was true.
I thought he would flame out the way Hugh Jessiman did. When he got a brief cameo in 2014, I felt my concerns were justified as he was part of the players that were victimized in Tarasenko’s highlight reel goal (which was later turned into a flipbook animation). In his only other game that year, he showed his courage by fighting Brian McGrattan. After it was done, I’m sure McIlrath wished he hadn’t.
When he made the team out of camp last year it was clearly more of a case of his waiver status than his standing with the team. However, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw from him in game action. Skating was still a problem, but he tried to keep his passes simple, and he had a very underrated shot. Low, on goal, and very heavy. More than his “crease clearing” or alleged deterrent effect, I wanted to see more of him because of that shot.
But the more I saw of him, the more it became clear that he was never going to be more than a third pairing defenseman. His skating is bad, especially when he has to start/stop or change from forward to backward. His play with the puck in his own zone is too predictable, far too often backhanding it around the boards. His “fight” against Tomas Hertl was the last straw: not only was McIlrath not adding much, he was now officially a detriment. To me, it felt like he was auditioning for his next employer that would value his toughness.
So now we wait for noon to see if he gets claimed on waivers. He certainly hasn’t shown enough as a player for other teams to be particularly interested in what he is today. Instead, his appeal is in his measurables and unfulfilled potential. As a right-handed defenseman, I think at least one team in the NHL should claim him, if only to see him in person before waiving him again. I think he’s a third pairing defenseman somewhere, even if it wasn’t here. His hometown Winnipeg Jets seem like a good fit, as they could use an extra right handed defenseman while Jacob Trouba holds out. Arizona plays Luke Schenn, and I think he’s certainly better than Schenn. The drawback for any team claiming him is that he turns Group IV UFA if he doesn’t play 42 games this year, but if a team claims him and likes him, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Personally, I’d still prefer him to Clendening or Holden on the right side. But now that he’sCle been waived, for his own good, I hope he clears. He needs to play in the AHL, and frankly, needed that last year as well. At the end of the season, he will be a UFA and can get a fresh start somewhere else.
It’s the Undertaker’s last ride. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
***UPDATE 12:01 PM***
McIlrath has cleared waivers and will presumably be assigned to the Wolf Pack. I think that speaks volumes to how he is viewed around the league, and it’s not just that AV hates him. That all being said, barring a slew of injuries to the Rangers defense, he will get a good season of development in the AHL before becoming a Group IV UFA this summer.