A wry smile creased the corner of Dylan McIlrath's mouth Thursday when the 23 year-old defenseman was asked how important the Rangers upcoming training camp is to him.
"Absolutely this is the biggest camp since I've been here," answered McIlrath. "It's no secret that I've been in the organization five years and time is ticking for me to kind of take that next step. I am really looking forward to this camp, for sure."
The 6-foot-5 McIlrath was selected in the first round, 10th overall, by the Rangers in the 2010 NHL Draft. He did not turn pro until the 2012-13 season, one that started late not because of the NHL's work stoppage that year, but because of a serious knee injury from the previous summer.
McIlrath appeared in 45 games for the Connecticut Whale during his rookie pro season, and really did not feel close to 100 percent healthy until the following season when he played in 62 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
However the best was yet to come for the rugged Winnipeg native. McIlrath appeared in a career-high 73 games a year ago in Hartford, and another 15 during the Wolf Pack's run to the conference final in the AHL. It was during the second half of the 2014-15 campaign, and during that impressive playoff run, when McIlrath convinced assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom that he was ready to be an NHL defenseman.
"He was our best defenseman for several months at the end of last season," explained Beukeboom. "In the playoffs he played in every situation and excelled in all of them. The more important the game or moment in the game, the better Dylan played."
Added McIlrath, "The second half of the year I felt like I was getting better each and every game, and the way I played in the playoffs just gave me even more confidence. I was playing the best hockey of my life probably in the playoffs. It was definitely a big step in my development."
McIlrath credits the coaching of Beukeboom for much of his improved play and success, as well as the fact that he stopped worrying about his future and just focused on playing hockey.
"I took a step back and just focused on what I had to do on the ice with the Wolf Pack, and that ultimately brought me personal success because I was just playing my game and not worrying about what the coaches or management was thinking," stated McIlrath, who has three games of NHL experience with the Rangers, including one game played with the big club last season.
Buoyed by his strong play to close out 2014-15, McIlrath comes to camp with confidence, even though he is well aware that the Rangers have one of the deepest defense corps in the entire league with veterans Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, Kevin Klein and Raphael Diaz also under contract.
However McIlrath plans to keep his focus on the task at hand and not worry about the end result, though his goal is crystal clear.
"It's great to finish off on a high (last season), my game was where it needed to be to take this next step," offered McIlrath. "I'm aware of my situation, yes. I'm not approaching it any different from I want to make this team. I want to be a Ranger."