McIlrath intimidation factor off the charts
Defenseman picked in last year's first round a guy opponents hate to face
Wednesday, 06.15.2011 / 3:30 PM / Prospects Central
• VIDEO: Gordie Clark on McIlrath's NHL Potential
• VIDEO: Jeff Gorton Discusses Drafting McIlrath
• Your View: How Will McIlrath's Game Translate to NHL?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
On the day before the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Los Angeles, Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ Director, Player Personnel took part in a live, online video chat with Rangers fans. Asked if he knew who the Rangers would be taking in the first round just over 24 hours later, Clark nodded.
Clark went on to say that the player his scouting staff had its sights on was sure to be a popular figure at The Garden one day, given his style of play and the type of players who become fan favorites in New York.
“They won’t be disappointed,” Clark said of how fans would one day appreciate the impending pick.
On June 25, 2010, defenseman Dylan McIlrath of the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors officially became that first-round selection at No. 10 overall. His enormous NHL upside -- along with his imposing size and toughness -- had made him one of the more coveted prospects in the draft pool at Staples Center. McIllrath was a player who got better and better throughout his draft year.
The Rangers had wanted McIlrath all along. They recognized that he was a rare NHL prospect because of his combination of size and skill, as well as a ferocity that has always made him an intimidating force on the ice.
Pre-draft scouting reports on McIlrath, then 18, had focused on this physical aspect of his game. The Hockey News referred to him as "the toughest player in the draft", and his WHL statistics were a good indicator of that. As a WHL rookie with Moose Jaw in 2008-09, McIlrath had 102 penalty minutes in 53 games, and in his draft year he collected 169 in 65 games.
|At the 2010 Traverse City Prospects Tournament, defenseman Dylan McIlrath turned in an impressive plus-4 performance paired with Ryan McDonagh, who was playing for the Rangers a few months later.
In 2010-11, McIlrath showed his improved scoring average from his draft year was no fluke, as he picked up 23 points in 62 games. His penalty minutes also dropped slightly this past season -- from 169 to 153 – as word has spread through the league that McIllrath was probably someone best not to engage.
Type McIlrath's name into YouTube and you can expect to find a bunch of videos that show his remarkable prowess as a fighter. He had 11 fighting majors this past season, and almost all of those bouts were one-sided in his favor. When McIlrath gets fired up, he is a force of nature that translates very well with those who enjoy watching hockey fights.
"Fighting isn't always necessary. There are different ways to handle a situation, and it's almost the intimidation factor that's the biggest part," said McIlrath. "But fighting is obviously in the game and there are people who do it. I don't see myself as a 'fighter' at the next level, but I definitely can do it when I am called on or when it's needed.”
One of the reason McIlrath’s YouTube videos are so popular is because of how fiercely he fights once the gloves come off.
“I wouldn't say I like fighting, but I do really like helping out my teammates that way,” McIlrath said. ... “Some guys can't stick up for themselves, but I can so that's a big thing. I can send a message to the other team early on that I mean business and they can't screw around. So that's part of the intimidation factor."
Clark says McIlrath's sense of himself is right on the mark.
"As far as scrapping, he's maintained that he doesn't just fight to fight," Clark said. "He fights for the right reasons, and that's maybe when somebody is maybe going after him or going after one of his teammates, and he obliges them."
McIlrath already stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 214 pounds when he arrived at the MSG Training Center for his first Rangers Prospect Development Camp a year ago this month. He is very poised, and in talking to him, it was hard to believe such a well-mannered and soft-spoken teen-ager was known as such a force on the ice back in Western Canada.
|Dylan McIlrath was a very busy prospect last summer, going from the NHL Entry Draft straight to the Rangers Development Camp, where he paid his first of many visits to the MSG Training Center.
• VIDEO: McIlrath on His First Month After Draft
At Traverse City, McIlrath got a taste of the jump he faces in moving from major-junior hockey to the pro game. The Blueshirts didn't hesitate to throw him into the heat of battle, as he was placed on the top defense pairing with Ryan McDonagh, who became an NHL regular just a few months later.
McIlrath was a plus-4 in four tournament games and skated regularly on both the power play and penalty-killing units. Clark called the McDonagh-McIlrath combination the tournaments' "best pair and McIlrath seemed to improve with every shift. In one game against Carolina, he broke up a couple of 2-on-1s and had a memorable moment when he lost his stick while taking Calder Trophy finalist Jeff Skinner out of the play yet still managed to clear the defensive zone with an alert hand pass.
"In Traverse City, he became comfortable playing with the pace and the speed, and he did the same thing after that in the Rangers’ main camp," said Clark. "Within a day or so of skating with the boys, he was able to play with the pace and the thinking of NHL players.
By playing so well alongside the pros, McIlrath raised his game to a point where it was tough to adjust back to junior players.
“Coming back to Moose Jaw it was a bit of an adjustment after playing with the pros with the different speed of the game,” said McIlrath. “At the beginning, I might have been trying to do too much just because I had become used to a faster pace."
Clark said that after going back to junior, McIlrath might have felt burdened by the expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick. Rangers legend Adam Graves, who works closely with prospects in his Hockey and Business Operations role with the team, visited Moose Jaw to spend time with McIlrath and give him a vote of confidence from the entire organization.
"Adam was really just saying: 'Here's the type of defenseman we drafted you as. You don't need to go back and prove to everybody that you are this big first-round pick that's supposed to take the puck and go end-to-end. That's not what we drafted you for,'" Clark recalled. "And then he quickly adjusted to that and he went back to his game where you just don't like playing against him. He plays a hard game on you and he shuts you down."
Graves said he is personally very excited about McIlrath's NHL future because he understands just how rare it is to find players of his nature in draft.
|After being selected at No. 10 overall in the 2010 draft, Dylan McIlrath posed on stage with members of the Rangers organization, including Jeff Gorton, the Assistant Director, Player Personnel (left) and Gordie Clark, the team's Director, Player Personnel.
• VIDEO: Rangers Draft McIlrath at Los Angeles
By the end of October, McIlrath had put together the first of his three 2010-11 three-game scoring streaks, including a season-high five-game streak in December. On Oct. 27 at Prince Albert, he was a season-high plus-4 in a big win over the Raiders, scoring his second goal in two games. Two nights later, he assisted on a game-winning goal with 4:20 to go in the third period against visiting Spokane.
His season hit its only real setback in a Nov. 13 game against Lethbridge, when McIlrath hurt his knee. The injury would keep him out for five games.
"It happened right at the end of a game," McIlrath said of his injury. "It was kind of a fluke accident just in the scrum off the draw. One of their players fell on my knee awkwardly and I went down. It was just a sprained MCL and I was lucky that it wasn't anything more serious.”
By December, McIlrath was in high gear, as he picked up a goal and five assists in a five-game point streak from Dec. 10 to Dec. 28. Almost all of his six points were scored on the power play.
January brought another run of points, starting with a power-play goal in a 3-2 win over Edmonton on Jan. 16, a season-high three-assist performance in a 4-0 home win over Lethbridge on Jan. 19 that earned him No. 2 star honors, and two more assists in a 6-3 win at Edmonton on Jan. 21.
The offensive spurts showed just how much McIlrath can contribute to his team’s offense, but the heart of his game will always be in his own zone.
"If you ask anyone in the WHL, they don't like playing against Moose Jaw because of No. 8 on the back end," Graves said of McIlrath. "He's a little bit out of the (Jeff) Beukeboom school of hockey. He's going to make you work for everything and he's going to punish you with hard checks."
At one point last season, Clark asked Graves to watch McIlrath match up against Saskatoon center Brayden Schenn, a Los Angeles Kings first-rounder who ranked No. 1 on the 2011 Hockey News Future Watch list of the top young NHL prospects. It was a great opportunity to see McIlrath at his best.
"He shut down Schenn and his line when Adam was there, and that's just what his job is going to be (in the NHL)," said Clark. "He's just never going to give the other guy a break. For the most part, he stayed on track of that being his game."
In keeping with that NHL projection, McIlrath's signature performance of 2010-11 came in Moose Jaw’s playoff opener at Kootenay on March 25 -- just nine days after the Rangers announced that he had agreed to terms on his first NHL contract.
|As a first-round draft pick, Dylan McIlrath found himself surrounded by reporters when he attended the 2010 Rangers Prospect Development Camp -- his first taste of life in the New York sports spotlight.|
"He's right on the path that we thought he'd be on," said Jeff Gorton, the Rangers' Assistant Director, Player Personnel. "He's obviously a guy that has a unique skill-set that you don't find too often, and his year was better than the year before. Overall his body of work is right what we expected at this point. Moving forward, we expect even more."
Once his playoffs ended, McIlrath went to Hartford and appeared in two regular-season games with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale. In his April 9 debut at hockey’s professional level, McIlrath fought fellow 18-year-old Alex O'Neil at 10:32 of the second period of a 4-3 home loss to Bridgeport. He also played in the Whale's April 10 regular-season finale vs. Norfolk.
With his experiences at Traverse City, the Rangers' main training camp, the WHL, and the AHL, McIlrath made key strides in 2010-11. He is hungry to improve, however, and looks forward to the upcoming Development Camp as a chance to measure his progress compared to a year ago. He also knows he'll be coming into the 2011 Traverse City tournament with a huge boost of confidence.
"It was definitely nerve-racking the first time. Not only being a high pick but also just representing the Rangers for the first time and pulling on the sweater for the first time," McIlrath said of Traverse City. "Not only did I want to prove that I was worthy of being picked that high but also to represent the Rangers jersey in a well-mannered fashion. This time around, I'll kind of know what to expect and there will be less hype around me since it's not my draft year this year."
McIlrath feels that he learned a lot in his first year after the draft, particularly when it comes to the differences between the pro and amateur game.
"The pace and the decision-making of the play are just so much quicker than junior," he said of pro hockey. "I tried whenever I could make to hard plays and develop that side of the game as much as I could (in junior). Obviously, being a bigger guy, I needed to get quicker and faster so I have worked on that all year."
"There is a lot of room to grow there, and it's exciting to think about," said Gorton. "The fans in New York certainly want to see him playing in the NHL sooner than later, but with a guy like this you just have to be patient and let that process play itself out."
McIlrath knows fans are eager to see him reach the NHL, and he's just as eager to get there.
"The Rangers are being really good with not wanting to rush me, but that being said, my mindset is to make the team like everyone else," he said of what will be his second Rangers training camp this fall. "It might be a year or two down the road, but my No. 1 goal is to make the team. If I'm sent back to junior, that won't the hardest thing because I know I can work on some skills there and it will make me a better player in the long run."
The 2011 Future Watch rates him the Rangers' No. 2 prospect behind Chris Kreider. McIlrath also joins Kreider in the ranking of the world's top 75 prospects, coming in at No. 50. An article in the issue referrs to him as a "classic diamond-in-the-rough".
The rough side of McIlrath's game has always been there, but the glint of the diamond -- and the dominant presence it represents -- has helped the hockey world understand even more why McIlrath got the big vote of confidence that the Rangers gave him at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.