Dylan McIlrath, now 22 years old, was selected 10th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft, two picks before Anaheim's Cam Fowler and four picks before St. Louis' Jaden Schwartz (the Rangers' Kevin Hayes was taken 24th overall in that draft). A lot has been said about where McIlrath was picked, especially with Cam Fowler still on the board, and it will, in all certainty, remain to be said with Cam Fowler now an established NHL defender while Dylan McIlrath has once again shown that he is not an NHL-ready defenseman.
In 2012-13 McIlrath played just 45 games with the Connecticut Whale due mostly to a serious knee injury that many agree spoiled half a season of invaluable development time for the hulking blueliner. And, to be frank, McIlrath desperately needs more seasoning. What we have seen of McIlrath has been interesting but also discouraging. At a stout 6'5" it is hard not to notice McIlrath on the ice and even harder not to notice his serious issues with positioning. What is worse is that he lacks the quickness necessary to make up for mistakes that allows a player like Ryan McDonagh to turn a quality chance for the other team into something far less threatening. Excellent skating ability is an invaluable asset when you're a defenseman and McIlrath simply doesn't have it. He skates quite well for his frame but he is not going to win any foot races, and that is a problem. So, since 2010 we have learned that McIlrath is in no way fleet of foot and that he still has a lot of work to do on his positioning, especially at the NHL level. When mistakes are made on the blue line in the NHL, they often turn into breakaways or odd-man rushes because of the speed of the game. There's no way around it, as of today, a player like McIlrath would be a liability on the Rangers' back line.
But we shouldn't be hanging our heads about our 10th overall pick from 2010 just yet. That's right, I said it. There is still hope. When the Rangers drafted McIlrath they were probably hoping for a Scott Stevens-type player but perhaps it would be better to just acknowledge what McIlrath already is before we start grumbling about what he was supposed to be.
McIlrath has a monstrous slap shot, he is undoubtedly a special player in regards to his toughness and physicality, and he already has an NHL body.
"McIlrath is a nasty, in your face NHL defenseman, who won't back down and can clear the crease for his netminder. Not afraid to fight or just intimidate, McIlrath has a good shot and his puck distribution has been improving, but he needs to improve his skating and defensive positioning."
There's nothing wrong with having a guy with McIlrath's skill set on your blue line, he is probably just not a guy you are itching to have in one of your top four defensive slots. So, while it is easy to be discouraged about McIlrath and his development, especially when one considers his peers from the 2010 Draft, McIlrath should still be considered a real option for the Rangers' blue line moving forward.
Back in late July I wrote that the upcoming season would be a huge one for Rangers' prospect Danny Kristo, the same is also true for Dylan McIlrath. Discipline, endurance, positioning, and consistency are the monkeys that McIlrath has to get off his back. In two "full" seasons in Hartford/Connecticut (McIlrath played two games with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in 2010-2011 and played with the Whale in the 2012 playoffs for nine games) McIlrath has played just 107 games due to injury, suspension, and a brief two-game call up with the Rangers last season. All told, McIlrath has played 116 professional hockey games since being selected by the Rangers in 2010. Most would agree that 116 games is not a lot of time for a defenseman to develop and prepare himself for the NHL game. We should keep that in mind before we dismiss McIlrath and start to use the word "bust" when discussing him and his future with the team.
The 2014-15 AHL season will be huge for the big kid from Winnipeg. In all likelihood his defensive partner will be Conor Allen, who compliments McIlrath's game quite well. McIlrath needs to show that he is more than just a redwood tree on skates. He has to show that he can be mobile and physical, that he knows the right time to take the body, and that he can stay out of the press box and avoid injury and suspension. This might not need to be the season for McIlrath to put it all together in the AHL, but it really should be if he is ever going to be in the NHL as a New York Ranger.
The modern game is all about speed and possession. The days where it was necessary to have someone that iced their knuckles after a game are slowly starting to phase out and fewer and fewer of those players remain in the league. The guys that do still make a name for themselves by being tough and not backing down from throwing their knuckles around often provide other valuable skills to their hockey clubs. In short, they are not as one-dimensional as they were a generation or two ago. McIlrath is much more than just a guy who can turn another man's teeth into confetti. He possesses a lot of the tools you look for in a big-bodied NHL blueliner. The question is whether or not he can put it all together this season, and just how much longer Rangers fans will wait before they stop muttering "Cam Fowler" whenever his name comes up.
McIlrath, who is a right handed defenseman, would have a lot work ahead of him even if he was ready to join the Rangers today. Girardi is signed until the end of space and time, Kevin Klein is under contract until 2017-18, and Dan Boyle is under contract for the next two seasons. So, in effect, there is no rush on McIlrath being ready. And that is a very good thing for both the Rangers and for Dylan. Maybe the Rangers' depth and current contract situation buys him another season or two in the minors to show what he has or maybe that same security blanket will keep him from getting his big chance with the big club. Whatever the case may be and whatever the next season or two holds for McIlrath, this much is certain- he has it in him to be wearing Rangers blue, it's up to him to see if he has what it takes to take it and keep it when that opportunity presents itself.