By Bob Crawford
Six-foot-five, 215-pound defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the tenth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers, wasn’t sure what kind of opportunity he would get when he joined the Connecticut Whale April 30 from his Junior Hockey team, the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. The Whale were coming off of a three-game sweep of the Northeast Division-champion Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the opening round, a series in which the Whale had allowed a total of three goals in the three games.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming in,” McIlrath said after a recent Whale practice. “This team was doing well, firing on all cylinders, sweeping Bridgeport. They had a good thing going, then I was fortunate to hop in the lineup and I feel really comfortable hopping in. I think this time around I’m just trying to go in with an open mind and just go play hockey and not think too much.”
This year’s stint is not McIlrath’s first kick at the pro hockey can. He also came to the Whale last year at the end of his WHL season, and got into Connecticut’s last two regular-season games. That experience, according to McIlrath, was good preparation for his first career pro playoff action this year.
“Absolutely, I think just getting familiar with the city, with the coaching staff, sleeping arrangements, it’s all familiar this time around,” the Winnipeg native said, “and it makes it a lot easier just coming to the rink every day, knowing the guys and just kind of feeling comfortable.”
A big part of that comfort zone has been the fact that, during the majority of his shifts in his first three playoff games in a Whale uniform, the 20-year-old McIlrath has been paired with 15th-year pro Wade Redden, the Whale captain and a veteran of nearly 1,000 NHL games.
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“It’s great, not only on the ice but off the ice,” said McIlrath of the opportunity to play with Redden. “After we come off from a shift, say one of us does something a little wrong, we can just talk it out. And he’s just a calming presence, like I’ve said before, and definitely appreciate all he’s done for me.”
After he sat out his first game on the Whale roster, Connecticut’s 3-2 overtime win at Norfolk in Game One, McIlrath’s chance to get into the lineup came because of an injury to another experienced Whale blueliner, Brendan Bell. The offensive-minded, puck-moving Bell plays almost a completely different style than McIlrath, a bruising, physical sort, but McIlrath hopes that his game provides an element that is key to having a chance to defeat the regular season league-champion Admirals.
“I definitely didn’t try to come in and replace Brendan Bell, I can’t do that,” McIlrath said. “I just tried to play my game, just a physical, hard-nosed game, and it seems to be working out for me so far. Hopefully I just can keep playing like I have been.
“I think I bring a different element and it’s a good element to bring, just to stop the rush. My game isn’t really puck moving, it’s more just defending the rush and just being a big-body presence. I’m going to do everything I can to help the team.”
One additional way in which McIlrath can help is by adding some extra physicality and “jam” to the Whale team, and by using the noteworthy fistic skills he has developed in the WHL to help keep Whale opponents honest. An example of that came in Game Four at the XL Center, when McIlrath put an exclamation point on a series-tying, 4-1 Whale win by dropping the gloves with Norfolk defenseman Scott Jackson, after he had laid a high hit on Ryan Bourque.
“It’s nice when you can stick up for a teammate, and definitely after the game everyone gave me high-fives and they were all pretty pumped for me,” McIlrath said of the scrap with Jackson. “It’s pretty rewarding that you can stick up for a teammate and everyone has your back.”
McIlrath also jumped on to the Whale roster at the perfect time to do some bonding with his new AHL teammates, as the nearly nine-hour bus ride from Hartford to Norfolk is the Whale’s longest bus trip of the year, and they have had to do it twice in this series. The Whale had a special bus, equipped with sleeping bunks, for both journeys, but for a guy as big as McIlrath, it’s still a long time to be cramped inside the “iron lung”.
“It’s a little tough, especially being rookies, we all have to huddle up together it seems,” he laughed. “You make it work, and I’m used to those long bus trips, coming from out west. So it’s not too bad.
“Out in the prairies (in the WHL) there’s a lot of distance between teams. I definitely got used to it and it’s not that bad any more.”
Since the excitement of being a top ten pick by an Original Six organization two summers ago, McIlrath has had two more solid WHL seasons with the Warriors, plus a couple of cups of coffee in the AHL. He is now about to reach another exciting threshold in his career, as, having turned 20 in April, he is old enough to leave the Junior ranks behind and play full-time in the AHL next year, if, of course, he does not hit it big and grab a spot with the parent club.
“Definitely my number-one goal is obviously to make the Rangers,” McIlrath said, “but that being said, if I come back here (to the Whale), I’ll definitely keep an open mind, and try to be a sponge and learn from guys like Wade Redden and older, veteran guys, and just kind of know the ropes and how it is to be a pro. I’ve enjoyed my time here so far, and I’m definitely going to take as much out of it as I can to get ready.”