Red Wings' Dylan McIlrath fired up about return to NHL, facing old team

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Dylan McIlrath

New York – This couldn’t have worked out better for defenseman Dylan McIlrath.

McIlrath was called up from Grand Rapids on Tuesday and was to make his NHL season debut Wednesday night – against the team that drafted him.

Coach Jeff Blashill confirmed McIlrath would be in the lineup against the Rangers.

McIlrath, 27, was a 2010 first-round pick of the Rangers, but has since bounced around to the Florida Panthers organization, then to the Wings.

“When you get the call, no matter the circumstances, you’re happy,” McIlrath said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “Especially to come back to MSG (Madison Square Garden), where it started for me, and it’s special to be back here.

“I’m just trying to enjoy it all. I never know when my last NHL game will be. I just want to take it all in because this opportunity doesn’t come around every day.”

The Wings need what McIlrath can supply, as he is a burly 6-foot-5, 231-pounder.

McIlrath adds size and a physical element to the lineup, but he’s also an effective penalty killer. And one thing about the Red Wings this nearly first-quarter of the season – they haven’t been great killing penalties, ranking near the bottom of the NHL at 68.6 percent.

“Dylan played real well for us at the end of last season, he was a real good penalty killer for us, and obviously our penalty kill hasn’t been very good,” Blashill said. “He also brings an element of physicality and size on our defense corps. Right now, we don’t have enough size on defense, and as a team, we haven’t brought enough physicality.

“We need to be harder to play against, and Dylan embodies that. Can he come in and play real good? I hope so.”

McIlrath was sent to Grand Rapids near the end of the exhibition season and began the season slowly. But the Wings have received good reports lately, as McIlrath had three points (all assists) in 10 games, with 15 penalty minutes.

“He struggled a little bit after he got sent down, it hurt him a little bit, but he’s played well of late and I hope he can come in and do a real good job,” Blashill said.

McIlrath played well for the Wings in a brief, seven-game look-see in March, posting a plus-2 rating.

That provided a bit of confidence for McIlrath, who has played 50 NHL games, and hopes to impress the Wings enough to earn a longer stay this time around.

“I just want to build off what I finished last year,” McIlrath said. “I came in with nothing to lose and playing my game has really helped me this time around. The team is struggling, but I’m not going to go out of my way and do something extraordinary that isn’t within my means. I’m just going to help the team in whatever way I can.”

McIlrath was an unrestricted free agent this past summer, but chose to re-sign with the Wings’ organization for two years, rather than seek an opportunity elsewhere.

“I wanted to be in this organization,” McIlrath said. “Top to bottom it has good people, a great staff  that wants to develop and are patient with guys, and that’s been huge with me.

“I’ve been able to play a lot and I love it in this organization.

“It was my first opportunity as a free agent and it was an easy choice (to stay) because they expressed their feeling to me that they like me in the organization, whether it’s in Grand Rapids or helping out the Wings.”

Rough start

Forward Frans Nielsen wasn’t sure after the morning skate if he’d miss Wednesday’s game after he blocked a shot Monday in the knee area.

It would be another frustrating part to a season where Nielsen is still searching for his first point after 13 games.

“You just come in with a positive attitude and go out and work as hard as you can,” Nielsen said. “The worst thing I can do is start cheating for offense, and doing that kind of stuff. I try to be really focused on being me and keep playing my game, even when it hasn’t gone the way I wanted.

“The one thing I’ve learned is the only way to get out of this is work hard and keep being yourself. As frustrating as it is, I can’t get away from being me.”

Nielsen consistently has brought an air of professionalism to the Wings’ locker room the last several years, and Blashill has seen it this season despite the offensive struggles.

“He’s trying, he cares,” Blashill said. “It’s not going his way. Can he be better? Yes. But it’s not from a lack of care, a lack of trying.

“Some of the things he takes pride in (power play, penalty kill), it’s not happening right now. It’s a long year; he’s got to find a way to make himself impactful and I believe he will.”

Ice chips

With McIlrath in the lineup it was expected Alex Biega would be a healthy scratch.

… Goaltender Jimmy Howard was expected to get the start against the Rangers.

Twitter: @tkulfan