Since the untimely end of Jeff Beukeboom’s career in 1999, the New York Rangers and fans have been searching for his heir apparent on the blueline. Unfortunately, 6’5 230lb crease-clearing, stay-at-home defensemen who can play responsibly at the NHL level do not grow on trees.
Enter the Rangers’ latest and greatest hope for an answer to the Beukeboom void: Dylan McIlrath.
Selected 10th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft ahead of current NHL stalwarts Cam Fowler, Jaden Schwartz, Nick Bjugstad, our Kevin Hayes and, most notably (and regrettably) six spots ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko, the 6’5 225lb McIlrath has yet to play more than five games in the NHL.
McIlrath’s development may not be entirely his fault, considering the major knee-injury he suffered in 2012 and the fact that it typically takes a while to bring big men up to the NHL level (major example: Zdeno Chara). But what is frustrating for fans is that the Rangers reached hard for McIlrath at #10, when they could have had impact players like Tarasenko and Fowler who were projected ahead of him.
Essentially, the Rangers drafted according to need, instead of taking the best player available. They weren’t the only team who drafted a big defenseman ahead of Tarasenko: the Arizona Coyotes took 6’2 Brandon Gormley at #13, while the L.A. Kings took 6’5 Derek Forbort at #15, one spot ahead of Tarasenko. The Montreal Canadiens also took 6’6 Jarred Tinordi at #22, two spots ahead of Kevin Hayes and four above Evgeny Kuznetsov.
To give you a sense of the amount of time it takes to develop quality big men, between Gormley, Forbort, and Tinordi, only Gormley has played in the NHL, logging a mere 23 games last season. On the flip side, all three are their organization’s top rated defensive prospect, with Gormley and Tinordi being consistently ranked among the top prospects league-wide.
McIlrath has been eclipsed on the Rangers’ defensive prospect depth chart, where he now ranks #4 according to Hockey’s Future, while the more skilled, less Beukeboom-ish D-man Brady Skjei has rocketed in development and promise.
The Rangers’ search for Beukebooms has been plagued with Beukebusts, and just plain bad luck as injuries cut short the emerging careers of Tomas Kloucek and Michael Sauer. What if McIlrath never pans out? Will Henrik Lundqvist be doomed to a career twilight filled with unchecked goaltender interference? Will Ryan McDonagh never be paired with that hulking defenseman who can open up the ice for him, the way Beukeboom did for Leetch and how a player Jake Muzzin does for Drew Doughty?
Not so fast. I’m rooting for McIlrath harder than anybody, and he still has time to fulfill his promise. But if he doesn’t, Rangers fans can take heart that the organization has two other big defensemen in the system, one of which has already jumped McIlrath in prospect rating, and the other who might be out best D prospect in two years.
Meet Ryan Graves and Ryan Mantha.
Selected in the 4th round (110th overall) of the 2013 draft, Graves is a 6’5 215lb powerhouse with a nasty slapshot, similar to the report on McIlrath. Like many big bodied players, his skating and transition game were areas where he needed to improve, but all reports have noted his positive development in both areas.
Graves plays on the top pairing of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts (Anthony Duclair’s team), which means his defensive assignments include Central Scouting ‘Q’ standouts like Timo Meier and Evgeny Svechnikov, who will be selected in the top half of the 2015 NHL draft.
Graves turned 20 in May, so he’s still young and has time to grow, but his year-to-year improvement in Juniors has been outstanding. Coming into this season, Graves had never scored more than 5 goals or 22 points in a single campaign. This year, he scored 15 goals and 39 points with a +17 rating, placing him third in goals among all QMJHL D-men and first in terms of goals-per-game (Graves played 10-15 games less than many of his top counterparts).
When the playoffs came around, Graves continued his scoring pace adding 5 goals and 11 points in 21 games. For a player who was not drafted for his offensive talents, this is an outstanding improvement. At the Junior A level, Graves has filled a Shea Weber type role: a big, physical force who plays top pairing minutes and scores with a devastating slapshot.
For proof, here’s a slowed down highlight of a Graves rocket that he scored while carrying the puck in at the blueline.
It’s not just his slapshot either. Check out this moment of the 2014 QMJHL Finals, when Graves scored in a big moment of Game 6 with a well-time wrist shot right off the faceoff.
Like McIlrath, Graves is also a fan of mixing it up, as evidenced by his mountain of fights available on YouTube. Here’s one from this year, where he responds with venom against a Jeremy Gregoire high stick.
That’s a wicked uppercut after a flurry of shots that landed flush on the visor.
Many players, of course, look good in Major Juniors, but Graves’ level of improvement, his age relative to the number of years he has left to develop, and his large assignment responsibility playing for one of the top teams across all three Major Junior leagues, is a promising sign of things to come. Expect to see Graves in a Wolfpack uniform next season.
Rangers fans who peruse the internet for obscure hockey information have probably heard of Ryan Graves by now, but not much his known about this guy, Ryan Mantha.
That’s because the Rangers are fresh off selecting Mantha in the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2014 NHL draft, just days after his 18th birthday. This kid is extremely young, and with room to grow at 6’5 225lb, he is certifiably mountainous.
Mantha fulfills the prototypical Sather “big man” D prospect, in that he’s got a large frame and a rifle slapshot. The conventional analysis of Mantha says that he’s a bit better at playing structured defense than McIlrath and Graves were at his age, and has elite stickwork that utilizes his long reach, but unlike those two, Mantha is regarded as a gentle giant.
We all know that the Garden faithful LOVE a big guy who doesn’t use his size to hurt and intimidate. Just ask Brian Boyle! (Can you taste the sarcasm?)
At the time of his drafting, Mantha was putting up anemic offensive numbers in under 30 games per season for teams in the UHL, but this season saw him make rapid improvements on both sides of the ice when he made the jump to the OHL, considered the deepest league in Major Juniors (think Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome).
Playing in 52 games for the Niagara IceDogs, Mantha racked up 10 goals and 25 points, while adding one goal and 6 points in 11 playoff games.
There isn’t much video on him, but take a look at this package of game highlights from March of this year, when Mantha’s IceDogs took on Dylan Strome and the Erie Otters.
The video starts from a play where Mantha displays good instincts joining the rush and crashing the net en route to a nice goal. He added two assists to the game, and the way he moves and works out there reminds me faintly of Marc Staal, another gentle big man with elite stickwork who can contribute offensively when he makes a point of it (in Staal’s case, rarely).
To be fair, Mantha makes a bunch of defensive errors throughout the rest of the video. To be fair-er, he’s regarded as being solid otherwise, and the IceDogs were playing an offensive powerhouse in a wide-open scoring game. In other words, nobody looked good on D in this game. There aren’t many Junior players who can stop Dylan Strome, and according to scouts, there probably aren’t many in the NHL either.
How about Mantha’s impressive slapshot? It’s difficult to find skills-related videos on any not-famous prospects, but luckily the IceDogs posted an internal Skills Competition video, where Mantha posted a 97 mph slapshot.
Check it out.
He had a second attempt that registered at 95 mph. You’ll also find some footage of his skating and stickhandling in there. But jeez – 97 mph? At 18 years of age? Would anybody be shocked if he could hit 100 mph on the regular in a few years, if not already? If it’s a choice between a crapload of YouTube fight videos, and proof-positive of an elite stick and a 97 mph slapshot, I’ll take the latter, thanks.
Mantha is a baby, a kid who was, er, “barely legal” at the time of his drafting (can’t draft ’em at 17 anymore!). Not many 18 year olds can play the minutes and assignments he does in the OHL, and man…that slapshot.
This kid has years to grow, and with a hockey pedigree in his bloodlines (he is the nephew of Moe Mantha Jr., who played over 650 NHL games), there is little doubt that his potential is high.
Comparing The Three
McIlrath, Graves, and Mantha all have many similarities. As noted above, all three possess big time size at 6’5 apiece, with varying frames. They also share similar injury histories, though McIlrath’s was the most serious and occurred later in his development (Graves and Mantha both sustained shoulder injuries in recent years).
In terms of toughness, there is no doubt that McIlrath plays with the hardest edge, and is the nastier, in-your-face, drop the gloves with anybody, menacing type player. Graves also has that edge, though not to McIlrath’s degree, followed by Mantha, to whom bullying doesn’t come natural.
Defensive prowess is a many-sided coin. Mantha seems to be ahead of where Graves and McIlrath were at 18, with the stickwork and instincts he posses. McIlrath and Graves seems to fall more in line with the crease-clearing aggressiveness of a Beukeboom, Orpik, or Phaneuf.
From an offense and skills perspective, it’s clear that they all have the same challenge: improve skating, improve hands, improve instincts.
We’ve seen some cool highlights from both Graves and Mantha, but honestly, it’s hard to find anything on McIlrath because his YouTube search results bring back a gargantuan library of epic fights, including NHL battles like this one against Ryan Reaves and here against Brian McGrattan, two of the league’s fiercest enforcers.
But here’s a nice wrist shot goal from the point that McIlrath scored for Hartford this year.
This leads into a major question about McIlrath: why can’t his YouTube highlights be more like, 75% fights, 25% goals instead of 99.9999% fights?
Put more seriously: can he play a style that fits today’s NHL?
Anybody who’s paying attention knows that the league has moved into an era where teams no longer carry one-dimensional enforcers on the roster. It’s why Paul Bissonnette is an AHL fan favorite who has played over 200 NHL games, and only 4 games in the playoffs. And while it is still plausible for a goonish forward such as Ryan Reaves to get playing time on a good team like the St. Louis Blues, it’s a whole other story for defensemen.
The Rangers played Keith Yandle on the third pair, for Christ’s sake. That’s an All-Star, elite offensive NHL d-man with unbelievable speed and skating ability, playing third pairing defensive minutes at the NHL level.
Suffice it to say, throwing the fists with nothing else to show is more likely to make McIlrath the next incarnation of the AHL’s Bissonnette than the second coming of Beukeboom.
Thankfully, Beukeboom is an assistant coach with the Wolfpack, and has taken McIlrath on as his protege. To McIlrath’s credit, all indications are that he is progressing well, punctuated by a stellar second half this season playing against men in the AHL. Beukeboom and Hartford head coach Ken Gernander have heaped glowing praise upon McIlrath for his play down the stretch and throughout Hartford’s run to the AHL Eastern Conference Finals.
On most teams, McIlrath is probably ready to play a good 30-50 games in limited third pairing minutes. However, the Rangers are the defending President’s Trophy winners with a glut of guys competing for the 7th, not 6th, but SEVENTH D spot. Whether it’s McIlrath, Brady Skjei, or somebody else who makes the team in that role next year, they may not see 20 games. So time is a factor working against McIlrath.
The same questions must be asked of Graves and Mantha, though. Can they contribute in a speed and possession-driven NHL, while still providing toughness and assignment responsibility in front of Lundqvist?
On an elite team like the Rangers who are known for their speed and d-men who can join the rush, can Graves and Mantha play smart but also drive shot attempts in the offensive zone? It’s a question that is no longer reserved for only top pairing D.
All this, and the intimidation factor needed to protect teammates, is the tall task ahead of these young men. The NHL is not so simple anymore.
Offensively, both Graves and Mantha seem to be ahead of where McIlrath was at their respective ages.
Here is a look at their amateur stats, courtesy of Hockeydb.com:
At age 20, Graves’ last 2014-15 season is best comparable to McIlrath’s 2011-12 age 20 season with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. For McIlrath, it was nearly identical in offensive output to his two prior seasons, with points in the 23-24 range and a +/- that started at +20 the year he was drafted, but leveling off at a 0 and +7 subsequently. He had zero goals and 7 assists in 27 playoff games from age 18-20.
Graves on the other hand, showed marked improvement in the two years since being drafted, improving from 3 goals to 5 goals, then a stunning 15 goals and 39 points, with 6 goals and 19 points in 51 playoff games (all 19 points came in the last two playoff campaigns, where Graves played 45 games). Graves’ +/- over the last two seasons was +20 and +17 respectively.
Age 18 Ryan Mantha was in-line with, but slightly ahead of age 18 McIlrath, besting him with 7 goals and 25 points with a +/- of +21 in 52 games, compared with McIlrath’s 7 gals, 24 points, and +20 in 65 games. Mantha added 6 points in 11 playoff games.
It makes you wonder where 4th rounders Graves and Mantha would have been drafted, had they put up these numbers entering their draft year instead of after?
A note about Canadian Major Junior leagues: the three major leagues are the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL. Most drafted talent comes from one of the three, though more and more are being taken from NCAA D-1 college hockey.
Each of these prospects played in a different league. McIlrath came from the WHL, which is regarded as being a rugged, defense-oriented league based out of Western Canada. Graves is cutting his teeth in the QMJHL, noted for its fast pace and high octane offensive style. Noted legends Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby came out of the QMJHL, and so did the Rangers’ Derrick Brassard. Mantha, meanwhile, plays in the OHL, which features the deepest talent pool and a good combination of defensive and offensive hockey. The OHL typically has the highest number of players drafted into the NHL.
In McIlrath’s defense, he has gone on to provide solid minutes and output in the AHL, while Graves and Mantha still have time to disappoint, as it were. At age 23, we still can’t definitively call McIlrath a success or bust until he gets regular NHL minutes (or doesn’t), but we do know that he has played well and put up consistent numbers across all other levels of hockey.
Until this year, McIlrath had yet to make that big jump in improvement, probably due to his major injury, while Graves and Mantha took big jumps after being drafted.
Unlike McIlrath, though, they have yet to play against men, and the only way to get that experience right now is in the AHL or KHL.
It is clear that due to his age, draft position, and current makeup of the Rangers roster, McIlrath has the most pressure and smallest window. If he contributes at the NHL level some day, it might have to be for a team that has the luxury to live and die with his learning curve. For Graves and Mantha, they might be two, three, even four years away from being NHL regulars, and the situation on NYR’s blueline could be radically different by then.
Rangers fans should feel really good about Dylan McIlrath. The rise of Graves and Mantha is not an indictment on him, but a sign of organizational strength. They don’t make McIlrath expendable.
Individually, it is anyone’s guess which of these three prospects has the best chance to make an impact with the Rangers. But collectively, there is a far greater chance that one of them pans out.
Time will tell if the Rangers farm system can hatch another Beukeboom, but clearly the eggs are no longer in one basket.