When Dylan McIlrath walked into the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, N.Y., at this time last year, he was taken aback by what he saw.
McIlrath, then just 18, entered the Rangers' practice facility, the site of the team's annual prospect development camp, for a taste of what the NHL was like. He was awed by the 105,000-square foot facility, set on 16 acres of private land about a half-hour north of Manhattan. He saw the state-of-the-art regulation-size rink, the 1,800-square foot cardiovascular and weight room and the plush player lounge.
"Seeing the facility like this, it was kind of overwhelming in a way," McIlrath told NHL.com. "I had never done anything like this, and I didn't know what to expect."
When McIlrath arrived this year for his second prospect development camp, he knew what to expect. And he knew what he needed to do to show Rangers personnel they made a smart choice by selecting him with the 10th pick of the 2010 Entry Draft.
Those improvements are something the organization predicted. The first development camp is usually intimidating for prospects -- especially those chosen in the first round.
"We've seen it time and time again," Rangers Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark told NHL.com. "When first-rounders come in to development camp, they think there's pressure with being picked first. It's like, 'Wow, I can't believe I’m here, I can't believe I was first. I have a lot to prove.' But they really don't. They just have to play the game they were drafted to play."
It took a year, Clark said, but McIlrath finally is getting it.
"Watching him at the rink this year, I just couldn't believe it," Clark said. “The overall confidence of his game, his handling of the puck, the moving of the puck and his body, the way he's built muscles. He knows he has to put on weight, but he doesn't want to do it just pumping iron. He wants to do it naturally and he has a great build on him. He's really developing well."
When the Rangers selected McIlrath, many people were surprised by the choice. A bruiser on the blue line, McIlrath wasn't a top 10 pick on many people's boards -- or even a top-30 pick.
McIlrath knew what people were saying, but he didn't listen to any of it.
"When you're thinking about that stuff like that, it's really distracting and you're not really playing your game," McIlrath said. "So no, I don't really think about that. I mean, I put enough pressure on myself as it is so I don't really add the draft status on top of it."
Instead, McIlrath decided to keep his focus on the ice -- and improve his overall game.
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound blueliner is known as an imposing force in the defensive zone with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. He had 24 points and 169 penalty minutes in 65 games in 2009-10, and followed that with 23 points and 153 penalty minutes in 62 games. Former Director of NHL Central Scouting EJ McGuire called McIlrath, "One of the most feared players in the Western Hockey League."
"I was asked this many, many times, and you can't just take a player because he had 19 fights or something like that," Clark said. "It was the fact that that was part of his game, but also that he was 6-foot-5, he was one of the most mobile defensemen in his draft year and that he was used as a shut-down guy for Moose Jaw. All of that together is why we picked him."
While McIlrath knows physicality is his strength, he knows that if he's going to contribute on Broadway, he's going to need to step it up in a couple different areas.
"I'm a guy that is physical and is defense-first,” McIlrath said. "But I was just trying to refine all my skills last year in junior and feel like it helped me a lot going into this camp."
As his second camp concluded last week, McIlrath said he was pleased with his performance. But perhaps even more important, he was happy with how comfortable he felt on and off the ice.
"This camp is more of a development camp," McIlrath said. "I'm just trying to pick the guys' brains and see what they think I need to work on and I can use that in training camp when it really counts. So right now it's just a learning process in the weight room and on the ice. But I feel like I'm showing the scouts that I'm playing a lot better than last year."