GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault isn't asking too much of defenseman Dylan McIlrath when he says he wants him to finally show that he can be an NHL player.
McIlrath, the Rangers' first-round pick in 2010 (No. 10), ought to be able to be one by now.
"We all know the toughness part, we need to see if he can play at this level," Vigneault said Friday. "Can he play against the third and fourth lines of other teams and be a dependable, physical, safe defenseman? That's what we need to find out during training camp."
McIlrath is entering his fourth professional season and has played three games in the NHL, but 182 in the American Hockey League with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Vigneault said last season McIlrath was Hartford's top defenseman and penalty killer from Christmas through the end of season, according to Hartford coach Ken Gernander and assistant Jeff Beukeboom.
He had 17 points and 165 penalty minutes in 73 games. There is nothing left for the 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman to do in the AHL. His time to make the NHL roster is now, or at least it should be.
McIlrath's problem is the Rangers appear set on defense with their top-six from last season (Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein) all back, joined by offseason free-agent signee Raphael Diaz.
Barring injury, McIlrath will have to outperform an NHL veteran in training camp to make the roster, or hope the Rangers carry eight defenseman. Vigneault indicated Friday that might not be an option because of their salary-cap situation.
The Rangers are already $549,000 over the $71.4 million salary cap for this season, according to war-on-ice.com. Teams are allowed to exceed the cap by 10 percent in training camp, but must be cap compliant when they submit their final roster before their first regular-season game.
New York opens Oct. 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"The cap is obviously going to come into play here," Vigneault said. "I've always preferred to keep eight 'D's and 13 forwards. I'm not sure we're going to be able to do that this year money-wise."
It's possible the Rangers keep a roster of 22 players instead of 23, with 13 forwards and seven defensemen joining the two goalies. If that's the case, McIlrath could be out of luck.
The problem with that from the Rangers' perspective is McIlrath's new one-year contract, which he signed on July 15, means he requires waivers in order to be sent to the AHL.
It's a one-way contract worth $600,000, according to the New York Daily News, and there is little to no chance a 23-year-old defenseman with that contract and the desire to prove himself in the NHL would pass through waivers unclaimed.
That puts the Rangers in the position of having to figure out if McIlrath can do what Vigneault wants him to do quickly, without the benefit of a regular-season game. That means the Rangers, if everyone stays healthy, will have to consider trading either McIlrath or another, more expensive defenseman.
"We'll have to see how things unfold here as far as forwards decisions that we have to make and the 'D's decisions that we have to make also," Vigneault said. "That's why you have training camp, and this one is going to be interesting. We have quite a few important decisions to make for our group."
McIlrath though has only one thing to focus on: proving to Vigneault and the Rangers' coaching staff he can be an NHL player.
It appears he'll be given the chance to prove it, but he might be trying to prove it to more than just the Rangers.
"Sometimes a defenseman takes a little bit longer," Vigneault said. "What I've seen so far in camp in the gym and in the [informal] practices with his teammates he's looked very good."