He was a bit of a surprise pick in June but the rugged Moose Jaw defenceman stood out in the Class of 2010 as the toughest rearguard available - enough for the New York Rangers to grab him 10th overall. Now after returning to the WHL from Rangers camp, Dylan McIlrath is focused on getting the Warriors to the post season and beyond.
I had a chance to speak with McIlrath before Moose Jaw's game against the Edmonton Oil Kings on Sunday.
The first pro camp for a player is always tough; a new experience surrounded by celebrity players can be an intimidating yet exhilarating one. For McIlrath, he had the added pressure of being a high first round pick headed to an original six team.
"Going in I had high expectations for myself and Traverse City was a good experience and I learned a lot and I carried that into main camp," he said, "I got to play against the pros and that was exciting. Overall it was a good experience."
"Yeah there was pressure from myself, my own expectations, and outside expectations on a guy who went 10th overall," he admitted, "I didn’t really focus on that and the brass was really supportive. They know I have lots of time to develop and one day make the team in the next couple years.
McIlrath took part in the Traverse City prospect tournament and then had a brief stay in main camp. He was returned to Moose Jaw before playing in any NHL pre-season games. Still, his stay in the Big Apple with the storied franchise was a memorable one.
"There’s a lot of history with the Rangers; It’s their 85th Anniversary this year so it’s exciting times," he smiled, "Seeing Mark Messier and Adam Graves walking around in the hallways is pretty neat and you get to know them, it’s nice to be a part of the organization."
That said, he also admits that for the first few days he was a bit star struck.
"Yeah absolutely; at Prospects camp," he conceded, "Seeing Messier and Graves and Coach Tortorella all at the rink... it was a treat to meet them all and get to know them on a personal basis. I got a tour of the city, on a double-decker bus around Manhattan and I was definitely star struck for a bit."
Some players have told us that the camp experience is better when you know some of the other players there with you. Having some familiar faces in the room helps ease that transition in new surroundings. For McIlrath, there were a few players at camp that he's either played with our against during his WHL career.
"They had a couple WHL invites, [former Moose Jaw teammate] Jason Bast went to Traverse City and [Brendan] Shinnimin [Tri-City Americans] did too," McIlrath said, "Jyri Niemi [Saskatoon] and Tomas Kundratek [Medicine Hat] are both signed by them so they’ll both play in the AHL this year. There was a bit of a WHL feel but there were a lot of guys that I didn’t know that I met there and now we’re good friends."
"We’re all rookies and going through it together and knowing some guys going in was great."
Being sent back to Moose Jaw didn't come as a surprise. No one was talking about McIlrath having a shot at sticking with the Rangers out of camp so he wasn't heart broken to get the news. Instead, the team gave him some general advice and he's now focused on the task at hand this year with the Warriors.
"They just told me to keep improving and that they thought I had a pretty good camp. Just keep re-tooling my skills and getting bigger, faster and stronger to play at the next level<" he said, "I’m going to try and have a bigger role with this team, be more of a leader. We’re a defence first team so the offensive opportunities might come later on as we grow as a team but personally I think I’m going to play my game and go from there."
When McIlrath was on The Pipeline Show last Spring, we discussed the fact that he started putting up some points after teammate Travis Hamonic was dealt to Brandon. That untapped offensive potential still waits to be fully uncovered but he knows that it's within him to put up some numbers.
"We haven’t had much for power play opportunities yet and I’ve only played four games so I’m not too worried about the points yet because I know they’ll come throughout the season," the pointless blueliner said, "That’s a personal goal, to get more points this year, but I’m not going to focus on points, I’m focusing on wins for the team this year."
The Warriors have been tagged as a club expected to make the playoffs and potentially challenge for the WHL's East Division crown. They've gotten out to a slow start with just one win in their first five games but McIlrath thinks the slump is just temporary.
"I think we’re just working out the kinks right now and we have a good solid group of guys," he explained, "We’re defence first and have a great goalie, great D and we’re going to create out chances from the defence and on to the forwards. We’re not worried, once we figure out the kinks and figure out our identity we’ll go from there and have a great season."
The Warriors have lost three straight and haven't scored more than two goals in any of their five contests. That's not the only problem they've had according to the alternate captain.
"Well we have to stay disciplined; We’ve been taking penalties and that’s cost us as the puck ends up in our net," he said, "We have to create more offensive opportunities, we haven’t scored that many goals in the games we’ve played in."
McIlrath, just 18-years-old, already has the reputation as one of (if not the) toughest guy in the WHL. I asked him if he's noticed a difference in how the opposition is playing against him so far this early season.
"Guys don’t finish their checks as hard and I don’t get challenged when I finish a check that’s for sure," he smiled, "I’ve gotten into a couple of scraps already and I don’t see that changing throughout the year."
McIlrath finished the 2009-10 season with 7 goals, 24 points and 169 PIMs. He's listed at 6'5 and 215 lbs.