By Matt Calamia (Twitter)
Dylan McIlrath's first season of professional hockey did not begin the way he thought it would.
Last summer during the Rangers development camp, McIlrath suffered a dislocated kneecap that required him to undergo surgery. The setback prevented him from hitting the ice with the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League until around Christmas time.
McIlrath, 20, called the injury an "emotional roller coaster," but added he can now look at the positives from the experience.
"It was a learning experience for me. I had never gone through a long-term injury like that," McIlrath told BlueshirtsUnited.com. "I took it with a positive attitude as best as I could … I think it made me a better hockey player. It taught me a lot about myself."
Through 32 games this season, McIlrath has two assists, a plus-5 rating and 90 penalty minutes, including 10 fighting majors. He said although defense comes first, he's working on all aspects of his game, including producing offensively.
The adjustment to the AHL from the Western Hockey League, where McIlrath — nicknamed The Undertaker — spent parts of four seasons playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors, was something he had to get accustomed to.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman said while the speed, skill and size of the players is better in the AHL, the biggest aspect he's had to adjust to was the "intelligence" of every player. "Everyone here is a good hockey player," he said. "it's definitely a lot harder than juniors."
Making the adjustment a little smoother for McIlrath has been Whale assistant coach and former Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukeboom. McIlrath credited him with helping his development during his first pro season.
Beukeboom, in his first season with the Whale, said McIlrath is "consistently improving" every game.
"He's a hard-worker. He's an in-your-face defensive defenseman that hits hard and doesn't mind sticking up for his teammates," Beukeboom told BlueshirtsUnited.com. "He's improved dramatically as the season has gone by, and every week it seems like he's getting better and better."
Comparisons between the two players have been made since the Blueshirts drafted McIlrath, though both shrugged off the notion.
The young defenseman said the two relate to each other due to the similarities in their games, and that McIlrath is constantly "picking his brain" to improve his game.
Beukeboom said it was "flattering" that the comparison is made, and added that "it's safe to say we're cut from the same mold of what we do on the ice." He said McIlrath is his own player, and its his job as a coach to work with him to keep the development moving in the right direction.
The Winnipeg-native said his main focus right now is to crack the Rangers roster, whether this season as a call-up, or next season out of camp.
"That's my No. 1 goal even right now is to get that call up," McIlrath said. "Obviously I'm not going to get that until I'm ready. I think I'm ready. If it doesn't happen this year, then fine." He said he will train hard this summer and be ready for camp next September.