The New York Rangers knew what they were getting when they selected defenseman Dylan McIlrath with the 10th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Winnipeg native was one of the Western Hockey League's most intimidating players in his four seasons with the Moose Jaw Warriors, piling up 551 penalty minutes in 232 WHL games.
McIlrath missed the beginning of his 2012-13 season with a knee injury. Then, less than 10 minutes into his first pro game with the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate in Connecticut, McIlrath engaged in a scrap with Bridgeport's Brett Gallant, setting the tone for his campaign. He has since added some muscle to his prominent frame and honed his signature nastiness.
On the plus side, the key moment of McIlrath's initial pro season might have been being partnered with a perfect mentor: former Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, one of the team's assistant coaches.
"I've got a good situation with Beukeboom being the defensive coach. He's great with me," McIlrath told NHL.com. "We have a good relationship. That's the style he played and he knows firsthand what it takes to win."
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McIlrath couldn't have found a more similar mentor. At 6-5, 230, Beukeboom spent 12 NHL seasons striking fear into the hearts of opposing forwards. His hard-nosed style earned him 2,087 minutes in NHL penalty boxes during a career that saw him play on four Stanley Cup-winning teams: three with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the Rangers.
Considering his large frame and no-nonsense approach to the game, Beukeboom would seem to be a perfect guide for McIlrath. Each even has a surname nearly as intimidating as his defensive style. The Rangers' hope is that with some guidance from Beukeboom, McIlrath can work his way into a deep defensive corps and provide the kind of size New York has lacked.
"The great thing about Dylan is he has no misperceptions about what kind of player he is. He is very easy to coach from that standpoint. Unfortunately he only played half a season last year because of injury. But his future looks promising," Beukeboom told NHL.com. "Coaches told me, 'Don't worry about this guy, he knows what he is.' It was refreshing to see that type of player. You don't see them too often, a player of his demeanor, because he seems to relish it."
That might be McIlrath's defining characteristic as a player. He doesn't just initiate contact, he loves it. He's always loved it. From the moment he was a kid in Winnipeg playing hockey and football, he's enjoyed the feeling of imposing his will physically on opposing players. That's why the Rangers drafted McIlrath, and it's why they've placed him under the wing of someone who made his living playing the same style of hockey.
"I loved [contact]. I played football too, and my dad was a football and rugby player. I enjoyed it from Day One. I felt I had more of an advantage because I was playing contact sports. I was always a pretty physical kid growing up," said McIlrath, who eventually experienced scheduling conflicts between the two rough-and-tumble sports and chose hockey. "I played both as long as I could. I think my bantam draft year I had to quit [football]. The year before, I had to miss some hockey games [for football] and the coaches were not too happy. I guess they had scouts wondering where I was."
Beukeboom refuses to make direct comparisons between himself and his protégé, but he admits it's refreshing to see a young player who focuses so strongly on the physical element of the game. Since he hung up his skates for good in 1999, it's become increasingly rare for Beukeboom to see a young player with such a nasty streak and a large frame.
McIlrath refined that style as the AHL season went along, collecting five assists and 125 penalty minutes in his 45 games. By season's end, Beukeboom was excited to see the emergence of a prospect who played so much like, well, himself.
"Now you're going to see him really come on. He's a very valuable commodity from the Rangers' perspective. Even though they're deep [on defense], they don't have that type of player," Beukeboom said. "From Day One, his first game, I think he was looking forward to the confrontation part of the game. His first game, he fought a man. He's a joy to be around and I'm looking forward to seeing where his development takes him."
McIlrath got his first taste of the NHL when he was called up to the Rangers last spring during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and served as a "Black Ace," participating in separate practices and witnessing exactly what goes into answering the bell in the postseason. He never saw the ice during the Rangers' 12 playoff games, but the experience should boost his development.
He's expected to spend another season with Beukeboom and the Rangers' AHL team, which was renamed the Hartford Wolf Pack this summer.
"Being around the team and just the playoff atmosphere at [Madison Square Garden] was amazing. It was definitely good for my development," McIlrath said. "I definitely want to be there the next time around."
When he makes the Rangers roster, it could be with a little help from Beukeboom, who was able to "be there" several times throughout his playing career.
"It was good last year to pick his brain," McIlrath said. "I'm looking forward to working with him more."