Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/4/2018 (1247 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In 2010, when Dylan McIlrath was drafted in the first round (10th overall) by the New York Rangers, he was a prime prospect and a prototypical shutdown defenceman.
He was big, a capable fighter with a nasty edge and a fearsome nickname (The Undertaker) — all qualities scouts savoured when he graduated from the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors.
Nearly eight years later, the way the game is played has changed dramatically, but McIlrath is still working to find permanent employment in the NHL. Traded twice last season (from the Rangers to the Florida Panthers to the Detroit Red Wings), the 25-year-old Winnipeg product has finally found a stable hockey home with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit’s chief farm team.
He also hasn’t given up on his big-league aspirations.
"Last year, I bounced around — five different teams and three organizations — so it was a lot of hotels, a lot of people to get to know and different cities," said McIlrath via telephone from Grand Rapids, where the Griffins were preparing for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series with the Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg on Saturday afternoon. "I was lucky to be in one place this year and I re-signed here because I love it here and knew I had a good opportunity in this organization to move up, hopefully."
The game’s recent evolution has put a premium on speed and puck movement, something McIlrath has been working hard on to improve.
"They’re calling penalties tighter, there’s a different way to defend than it was even from when I was drafted," the 6-4, 235-pounder said. "It’s an adjustment every year when they try to limit the clutching and grabbing and all that stuff, but I feel like I’ve tried to adapt every season. It goes hand in hand with finally being healthy. I finally played a full season. I didn’t miss a game this year."
The improvements haven’t gone unnoticed. Grifffins head coach Todd Nelson employs McIlrath in a shut-down role and leans heavily on him as a penalty killer.
"He’s improved quite a bit," Nelson said. "The areas of improvement have been his puck skills and also making plays, bringing the puck out. That was one thing that he got better at. He’s one of our main guys on the penalty kill... He’s even contributed offensively the last couple of months and had a more offensive mindset, but he’s still meat and potatoes. He plays an abrasive style and he’s excellent defensively."
In 76 games this season, McIlrath scored seven goals and 17 points while piling up a team-leading 119 penalty minutes.
Now he’s trying to make up for lost time after injuries wreaked havoc with his early development. McIlrath blew out a knee during the Rangers’ development camp in 2012 (he missed half of his first full pro season) and injured his other knee in 2013.
His reputation as a pugilist was also part of the package, but he’s put in the time honing his puck skills and skating.
"I tried to make my presence felt with hits all the time and fighting all the time, getting my reputation up," McIlrath said. "That way, later in my career, I earned that respect. I was picking and choosing. That’s what’s helped me develop other parts of my game — giving me more space and trying to make plays.
"For a big guy that can hopefully play against top players, you need to have your presence felt and you’ve gotta play... It didn’t work out in New York, but I still believe I can play at the next level."
Joe Hicketts, another Red Wings defence prospect who plays in Grand Rapids, has come a long way from going undrafted in 2014. After attending Detroit’s development camp that summer, the 5-8, 180-pounder signed an entry-level deal before returning to the WHL’s Victoria Royals and making an impressive splash with Canada at the world junior championship.
Upon turning pro, he was an integral part of the Griffins’ Calder Cup-winning effort in 2016-17.
"I’ve come a long way," Hicketts said. "In junior, you get away with a lot more stuff... (In the AHL), you have to deal with the ups and downs of the season, you learn to handle some of the bigger, stronger, faster guys you’re playing against."
Said Nelson: "Even though he’s 5-8, he plays like he’s 6-4. The most intriguing thing about him is that he’s strong in the corners, he likes open-ice hits. He’s kind of a throwback defenceman."
Hicketts was recalled by Detroit at end of the regular season, registering three assists in five games. The 21-year-old felt the audition went well and believes he has a shot at making the NHL next fall.
"It’ll be a lot of work, but that’s the goal," Hicketts said.
"I got a taste of it this year and from playoffs till training camp next September, it’s gonna be bettering myself and giving myself the best opportunity to make that team. I don’t think it’s any secret Detroit’s in a bit of a rebuild here, so now’s the perfect opportunity to make my mark."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.