By Pete Wallner, MLive.com
GRAND RAPIDS - The day the Detroit Red Wings traded Thomas Vanek to the Florida Panthers is when the Grand Rapids Griffins knew they could contend for the Calder Cup Trophy.
Sounds disconnected, but the fireside trade of the free-agent-to-be netted the Red Wings a third-round draft pick and burly defenseman Dylan McIlrath, who was quickly dispatched to the team's AHL affiliate.
While the March 1 move initially was disheartening to McIlrath, a former first-round pick on his third organization of the season, his arrival was the difference maker to the Griffins.
"We felt like he was the piece we needed," Griffins coach Todd Nelson said not long after McIlrath arrived.
The Griffins at the time remained atop the Central Division, but they were the league's least penalized team and didn't have that one player who could provide a physical presence to keep opponents honest.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound McIlrath has done that and more. Heading into the Friday's Calder Cup Finals home opener against the Syracuse Crunch, McIlrath has kept heads on a swivel and also been one of the Griffins' most productive blueliners. He leads all postseason players with a plus-12 rating along with five assists in 13 games.
"He's an animal," Griffins teammate Tyler Bertuzzi said. "I can't say anything else. He's been really good for us and steps up for us and he's a real big team guy."
Nelson's opinion of McIlrath has only grown in the playoffs.
"Since we got him our guys play a lot taller," Nelson said. "Just having his presence. He's a good guy in the locker room and knows his role and is playing real good hockey for us. But when the game does get ugly, he's there."
In the Western Conference Finals against San Jose, McIlrath stayed penalty free except Game 4 when he was needed. McIlrath first pushed around Kevin Lebanc in a wild second period and then earned a five-minute fighting penalty as he knocked down Dan Kelly in the third period of a game that featured 31 penalties.
As the exited the ice, McIlrath threw his hands in the air to send the Van Andel Arena crowd wild. The following night, the Griffins eliminated the Barracuda in five games.
How does McIlrath view his role?
"It's just my game - I try to create space for other players and knowing that I have their backs," he said. "Sometimes that helps them relax and go play. I, obviously, didn't fight every game (since joining the Griffins), I only had one of two majors, but knowing I'm going to have my presence felt helps me get in the game and that's been my style all along."
McIlrath was selected by the New York Rangers with the 10th pick in the 2010 draft. He reached the Rangers in 2013-14, played in 73 games and had 17 points (6-11-17) along with 165 penalty minutes.
He spent most of 2014-15 back in Hartford in the AHL before playing 34 games for the Rangers (2-2-4) and picking up 64 penalty minutes in 2015-16.
This season has been a head spinner with three organizations and five different jerseys.
McIlrath was with Hartford when he was traded in November by the Rangers to the Florida Panthers as part of a trade involving Steven Kampfer. He played five games with the Panthers and 18 with affiliate Springfield before a second deal landed him in Grand Rapids. He debuted with the Griffins on March 3 and had four assists and 42 penalty minutes in 21 games.
McIlrath in his five seasons as a pro has developed a reputation that is meant to be intimidating. It also doesn't come overnight.
"Early on I had to earn respect and I would fight as much as I could to get my reputation out there," he said. "But now I can kind of pick and choose when I want to step up. The ball's in my court, and that's been hard work over the years."
McIlrath, still just 25, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so the Red Wings must decide if he has a future with the organization. For now, though, the moves have been worth the payoff of the playoffs for McIlrath.
"It was a blessing getting traded to this organization," he said. "Obviously, difficult year being traded twice. It would have been a bitter end to my season just finishing it out without making the playoffs.
"I was just so fortunate to come here to a first-place team at the time. So, yeah, I'm just loving this playoff run so much."