Dylan McIlrath played for three organizations last season, but his final stop proved to be unforgettable.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
In every way, 2016-17 was a season to remember.
Whether or not it was a career year for Dylan McIlrath, it was a year that seemed like a career. A former first-round draft pick, the hullking defenseman had never been traded in his life, but he found himself dealt not once but twice last season.
McIlrath played in five different cities for five different teams, culminating with his arrival last March in Grand Rapids, where he provided the missing piece in the team puzzle that produced the Griffins’ Calder Cup championship.
“It was definitely a crazy year, but the ending made it pretty sweet,” McIlrath said. “It was weird being traded twice, but it was all worth it.”
A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, McIlrath became the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft when the New York Rangers selected the 6-foot-5, 235-lb. blueliner after he gained notice playing three years for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League.
McIlrath would be the first to admit that his professional career has not gone exactly the way he had envisioned and that luck has not always been on his side. A bit of a late-bloomer in terms of his position, it probably didn’t help his development that he had to rebound from injuries early in his career.
In retrospect, McIlrath said he knew his advance to the NHL would take time.
“I never expected to make the NHL out of juniors,” he said. “I felt like I was the type of player who would take a few years to develop, because I had played defense only a couple of years before getting drafted by the Rangers.”
McIlrath bounced back and forth between New York and the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford, Conn., during his six years in the organization. He played 38 games in New York, the majority coming during the 2015-16 season when he appeared in 34 contests with the Rangers.
“I loved my time with the Rangers,” he said. “I spent six years in the organization and have nothing but good memories that I will cherish. They’re obviously a first-class organization and do everything to take care of their players.”
No player looks forward to knee surgery, but an operation in the summer of 2012 gave McIlrath a chance to overcome adversity and enabled him to see how much he meant to the organization. “They made sure I saw the best doctors and medical staff to treat and help rehab me,” he said.
Nonetheless, playing in the fishbowl known as the Big Apple is a challenge. Getting drafted 10th overall made it doubly difficult.
“Being a high pick is something I had never dealt with, but the expectations come with the territory of going high in the first round,” he said. "I dealt with the emotions associated with it, but it didn’t really change my approach because I put a lot of pressure on myself anyway.”
“I tried not to listen to the outside influences. Obviously, there’s more attention in New York with the media and all the fans, so it’s hard not to get caught up in it, but you try your best to block it out. It’s a big market and people expect the team to win, but you learn to love that.
“Like they say, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.”
So it was a bit of shock when he was traded to the Florida Panthers a month into last season. Still, he was excited about the new opportunity, looking at it as a fresh start. But as luck would have it, the Panthers fired head coach Gerard Gallant less than three weeks after his arrival. McIlrath appeared in five NHL games with Florida, but the new regime would ultimately deem him expendable.
“The situation was a little difficult,” he said. “With all the stuff going on, it was tough to stay focused on the ice. It was too bad because I really wanted a fresh start there. I thought I could help the team, but it didn’t work out.”
When the Panthers traded McIlrath and a conditional third-round pick to the Red Wings for Thomas Vanek at last year’s deadline, the Griffins were thrilled.
“He was the missing piece,” said Griffins head coach Todd Nelson. “We already had some grit, but we didn’t have an answer if other teams had a heavyweight. Just his presence meant that other teams didn’t take as many liberties with our players. After he joined the team, all of our guys played a foot taller.”
McIlrath admits that he initially was a bit dismayed after being traded for the second time in the same season. “It definitely caught me off-guard,” he said. “But when I realized I was coming to a team that wanted me, and it was evident that this was a team that could contend for a long playoff run, I was just happy to be a part of the team.”
He embraced his new team and his role within the organization. His reputation preceded him. “I knew what I had to do to help the team,” he said. “From the start, it seemed like a good fit.”
His true value was evident during the Calder Cup Playoffs, where he cleared space for the Griffins’ playmakers and goal scorers. “He played so well for us,” Nelson said. “He’s a bigger body, but he’s still rangy. He did a great job from the time he got here. He only had to fight twice because he commanded so much respect.”
When McIlrath arrived in Grand Rapids, he was sure that he was joining a team that could win it all. “It seemed like we had the right mixture of players,” he said. “From top to bottom, we didn’t have any holes.”
And yet the determination, drive and dogged teamwork necessary to capture the Cup was more than most expected. “I think we all learned how hard it is to win in this league, especially in the playoffs,” he said. “Every round seemed to get harder and harder. Taking care of your body is one thing, but being able to beat your opponent requires that you stay mentally sharp.”
He notes that it was hardly a cakewalk. The Griffins swept Milwaukee in three games in the opening round, but two required overtime. All four of the Griffins’ victories in the Finals were by a single goal. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “They were all tight games. We won a lot of one-goal games, including a few in overtime, so it was a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Winning the Cup after such a personally tumultuous season was especially gratifying. “I think it still hasn’t completely sunk in,” he said. “It’s definitely the highlight of my hockey career. I’m sure it’s something that I will reflect on for years to come. I know I’ll remember all the guys on the team forever.”
After it was all over, the Red Wings rewarded McIlrath with a new two-year contract. “I love the city, and the organization has treated me with nothing but respect and the utmost care, so it was an easy decision,” he said.
This season, McIlrath looks to further establish himself as a defensive force who can be a difference maker. “I feel like I’ve grown every year,” McIlrath said. “Bouncing around a couple of times last year felt like a step back, but I feel those experiences will help me in the long run.”
Although he is thrilled to chip in offensively, McIlrath has no illusions of becoming a point producer. “My bread and butter is my defensive game, and I try to take care of my end first. I want to be physical and make room for my teammates. I know I can play and contribute in ways to help the team win.”
Looking at his situation honestly, he admits that his career has been stuck in idle for a while. “I thought I would be in the NHL by now, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “I’m just trying to develop all aspects of my game.”
After being paired mostly with Dan Renouf, he has partnered this season with 5-foot-8 Joe Hicketts, whom he may overshadow in size but not necessarily in the physicality department. “It’s all about working together,” he said. “Lots of communication is the key.”
“You try to find chemistry with your partner. It seemed like (Dan) Renouf and I had great chemistry right from the start. This year it’s (Joe) Hicketts. He has an offensive game and likes to throw his weight around, so we match up pretty well. I try to get him the puck because he’s a guy that likes to make plays.”
While McIlrath believes the Griffins will be tough to beat once the team finds its groove, he concedes that winning it all might be more difficult the second time around. “Every other team is gunning for us because we won it all last year,” he said. “In this league, everyone is trying to make the NHL, so it’s hard to win.”
But when he looks around the room at his teammates, he can’t help but smile. He likes this team’s chances.
“We have the same culture,” he said. “With a lot of returning guys and the same coaching staff, we have all the pieces in play. A lot of new guys have come in and are doing a great job. After 12 games, we were still trying to find our way. I think if we can all get on the same page, we have a good chance of going far into the playoffs again.”
He is confident good things will happen if he can help the Griffins organization raise the Cup a third time. “In this league, you get an opportunity to prove yourself every night. If you can do it on a consistent basis, you can build a path to the NHL,” he said. “I’m trying to keep my nose to the grindstone. My end goal is still to play in the NHL.”