McIlrath’s NHL Return Has Been Long Time Coming. He Plans To Make Most Of It
Defenseman Dylan McIlrath is hungry to capitalize on his opportunity as he returns to the NHL for the first time in years with the Washington Capitals.
ARLINGTON, V.A. — Dylan McIlrath has waited over three years to earn a stall again in an NHL dressing room again. On Thursday, he finally got one after earning a call-up to the Washington Capitals, who he signed with back in 2021 with hopes of making it back to the big league. After a year and a half with the Hershey Bears, he will be back in an NHL lineup as the Capitals take on the Florida Panthers, and he's hungry to capitalize on that opportunity.
With Alex Ovechkin away from the team indefinitely following the death of his father and John Carlson still recovering after taking a slapshot to the face back on Dec. 23, the Capitals rewarded McIlrath and recalled him from Hershey to experiment with their defense as they continue their push for the playoffs. The 6-5, 232-pound defender is a tough customer and right-hand shot who can log heavy minutes, throw his weight around, act as a physical presence and battle hard.
"I'm just doing what I can, trying to be myself. I've been at this long enough to know what I am as a player, so I just try to play my game, nd I guess Washington liked that enough to call me up," McIlrath said. "I'm a simple stay-at-home defenseman that plays with a little edge, so it's just what I try to do every day."
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The 30-year-old defenseman was the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, but his career hasn't exactly gone according to plan. McIlrath has played just 66 games at the NHL level, picking up three goals, two assists and a +/- rating of plus-2, along with 99 hits and 121 penalty minutes. He has spent the majority of his career down in the AHL trying to work his way back up and has had a strong year with the Bears playing top-line minutes, racking up 10 assists and a team-leading 83 PIM and serving as the 45th captain in franchise history.
"It's been a lot of fun this year. Obviously, it's an honor being the captain in Hershey, historic franchise. It is very humbling to see who's come before me and as far as being the captain, I try to just be myself — that's why I got appointed — and play my game every night."
Reflecting on 2022-23 so far, McIlrath said that his confidence is pretty high, especially after this recall and having earned another short-lived call-up ahead of Washington's game in his hometown of Winnipeg back in December amid blue-line injuries. He also feels there is more consistency in his game.
"It's unreal. Obviously being a guy that's spent most of his career in the minors, you never know when you're going to have your last NHL game," McIlrath said. "So I just try to enjoy every moment as best I can, especially with a team like this, veteran group trying to win, it means a lot.
"Being back in the NHL, it was definitely a really big boost for me, knowing that I'm still wanted and appreciated. It kind of gave me the confidence that I can still do this," McIlrath added of the December call-up.
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McIlrath will play on the third pairing with Martin Fehervary on Thursday and look to shut down a heavy Florida Panthers team that focuses on net-front presence and attacking the crease. And while he knows that he could earn an extended look, and even potentially play in an outdoor game with the team flying to Raleigh after Thursday's game, he is taking things day by day.
"Consistency, that's been my biggest thing throughout my career," he said. "I've shown spurts that I can play in the NHL and I've played well, but there's times that I can struggle, too. So I just really tried to hone in on my game and not stray away from that too much.
"It's one day at a time. I've learned not to look too far ahead of things," McIlrath noted. "If I make the flight tonight, that'll be special, but I'm just worried about tonight first."
While it's just one game, McIlrath said that he feels valued and the best he's felt in years as he continues his tenure with the Capitals organization.
"It's just first class top to bottom. They really care about their prospects and care about development and they care about winning… I wanted to make sure I was going to be put int the situation that, if I'm in the minors, I want to win," McIlrath said. "And then, if it's the NHL team, I want to be the best available next man up. I've been in situations in the past where the team is rebuilding and whatnot and they're just playing prospects, but I just wanted to give myself every opportunity to get back in the NHL."