The New York Rangers have a number of quality prospects in the Western Hockey League, most prominantly Dylan McIlrath. So I decided to get in touch with Cody Nickolet, who does radio commentary for the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL and also has a website called WHL From Above. The man obviously sees a lot of WHL games and is about as good of a source of knowledge in regards to its players as there is. Cody kindly agreed to discuss Rangers prospects and WHL players Dylan McIlrath, Michael St. Croix, and Shane McColgan (recently traded to the Saskatoon Blades). Keep reading to see our exchange:
Adam: Of course it’s still early and a lot can and will happen. That being said, has the play and development Dylan McIlrath thus far justified the Rangers’ selection of him at 10th overall?
Cody: I’ve always been a supporter of the Rangers taking McIlrath 10th overall in the 2010 draft. I can usually get in a team’s corner when they are clearly after the guy they want in a draft. Sometimes you can’t just risk missing out on a guy you are really high on. Along with that, I think his play has justified the pick. For my money, he’s one of the top 3-5 defensive defenders that the WHL currently has to offer. He’s taken strides in all areas of his game including his passing ability, mobility and he has also learned to reel in his overaggressiveness a good amount.
Adam: John Tortorella’s system demands defensemen who can skate. Does McIlrath’s size impede his mobility? How do you see him adjusting to the NHL in that regard?
Cody: McIlrath isn’t a great skater and likely never will be. It’s always been somewhat of a knock against him, but it’s still an area that has improved significanly since he had his name called in the draft two years ago. I’m of the opinion that it will take him likely a full season in the AHL to work on this area of his game, learning and adjust to the speed of pro hockey. A guy with his size and reach doesn’t necessarily have to be a top end skater to be a successful NHL player, he just has to learn how to use his positioning that much better and also to capitalize on his long wingspan, which is a fantastic asset to have as a defensive defender. I expect him to see a small handful of NHL games later in the 2012-13 season and likely be a full-time NHL player in 2013-14.
Adam: Dylan has experienced his fair share of injuries, including knee problems and concussions. Just recently he dislocated his kneecap. How concerned should Rangers fans be about his durability?
Cody: It’s always a concern when a guy seems to have nagging injuries like McIlrath has. His rugged style of game definitely doesn’t help his cause either. He’s very aggressive on the ice and isn’t afraid to step up in open ice to throw his weight around. With that being said, I feel that he can change his game while worrying about injuries. His angry game is what makes him effective. He can’t change that and I think injuries are just a part of the game, especially for such a rugged player. As for his concussions, I think as long as he picks his fights properly, they shouldn’t be a big problem. I consider him to be a top 2-3 fighter in the WHL, but he can’t challenge elite heavyweights right off the hop as a pro.
Adam: Shane McColgan was recently traded to your Saskatoon Blades. What role is he expected to have with the team?
Cody: The Blades have high hopes for McColgan. They paid a big price to get him but they know full-well what he is capable of. As the roster stands know, I think he can be one of the teams 5 30 goal scorers. The Blades don’t necessarily have an elite star, but will instead be counting on depth offence to be successful as they host the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup. McColgan also offers the unique ability of being able to play both center and as a winger. It gives the team flexibility in their top 6. Personally, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he ended up leading the team in points next year, especially if he can find some chemistry with some of Saskatoon’s other top players. The Blades will also be counting on Shane to improve their powerplay immensely. They have lacked a solid point presence since the departure of Stefan Elliott and having Shane on the point will go a long way.
Adam: Shane’s goalscoring has dropped off every season since his rookie campaign. However, reports circulating are that he has rounded out the rest of his game in this time. Is the drop in scoring signs of a stunt in development or a sign of him becoming a more complete player?
Cody: McColgan’s offensive numbers have been pretty stagnant over the last few seasons, but I don’t think it’s because he hasn’t grown as a player. He has definitely come leaps and bounds when it comes to rounding out his game. He’s not the biggest guy, but he has definitely improved his ability to position his body to play on the defensive side of the puck. I know that going forward, he will also be counted on to kill penalties with the Blades and that says alot about how far he has come defensively. When it comes to his goals and offense, you also have to realize that his Kelowna Rockets club wasn’t nearly as strong in 2011-12 as it was in previous years, which will definitely affect his totals.
Adam: How much do you believe his smaller frame will hinder his chances of sticking in the NHL?
Cody: It’s always a tricky situation when talking about a players size. McColgan definitely isn’t the biggest guy, but atleast he plays like he’s big. He works hard, competes and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves to stand up for a teammate. That kind of attitude can go a long way. I think that attitude and his growth defensively likely means that he could one day be a 3rd line NHL player. When he was drafted, I think he was a 2nd line or bust type of player. If he can continue to round out his game and improve his offensive abilities, his lack of size shouldn’t hinder him too much. Many small players are finding success every day in the NHL.
Adam: Let’s talk about Michael St. Croix; what about his game allowed him to be so dominant in the WHL last season?
Cody: Michael St. Croix has always been a fantastic offensive player. I think last year, he finally got more talent to work with on his Edmonton Oil Kings club and they were able to take that huge step forward as a team. He was a big part of that as he possesses great offensive skills. He’s a good skater, is very shifty, plays with his head up, is a good playmaker and has the ability to score some fantastic goals. His season last year was really about slow progression, he didn’t have a blazing start, but continued to get better as the year went on. I think that says good things about his development because confidence can be a deal breaker when you are talking about 18 year old prospects. His is clearly sky high and that could be the boost he needs to take that next step developmentally.
Adam: We’ve heard that he fell to the fourth round because of concerns about his physicality, defense, and play away from the puck. How far has he come in developing those aspects of his game?
Cody: With that being said, he still has some holes in his game. I’ve always been fairly hard on him as a prospect just because I felt his compete level wasn’t the best and that he tended to shy away from the dirty areas of the ice. Those are areas of his game that have improved quite a bit over time but are still inconsistent. If he can dominate the WHL again next year while rounding out his defensive game and learning to use his added size and strength, it could mean that the sky will be his limit as a pro. Him and McColgan were both fantastic value picks for the Rangers in the 2011 NHL Draft, I said it then and it’s even more true now.
Adam: There have been plenty of CHL superstars who amount to nothing once they turn pro and face bigger and better defensemen. Is St. Croix the real deal?
Cody: Like McColgan, St. Croix has started to round out his game. I think the same theory fits for him too, that it’s becoming more realistic that he could one day play a 3rd line role in the NHL. He’s not necessarily seen as the boom or bust player that he once was. Ideally, he will still be a contributing top 6 offensive player who gets significant PP time but it’s nice to see his game improving as much as it has. In the past I’ve compared him to Daniel Briere and I think the comparison is still a fair one. He’s not the biggest guy, but he can play big when he wants to be and he still tends to battle some consistency issues when it comes to his all-round game. He’s got a bright future as long as he continues to work hard and doesn’t let his recent WHL success get to his head.
Outside of Traverse City, most Rangers fans I’d assume don’t get to see much, if any, of our prospects in the WHL. So it’s great to talk to somebody who is immersed in WHL hockey and can give us some in-depth analysis on what is going on. Much thanks to Cody for speaking with me and sharing his thoughts on McIlrath, McColgan, and St. Croix. Make sure to follow him on twitter (@WHLFromAbove) and send him any questions you might have for him; I’m sure he’d be happy to talk.
Follow Me On Twitter: Herman_NYRBlog
Email Me: AdamNYRBlog@gmail.com