Friday, April 30, 2010

Red Line Report: McIlrath better fit over Merrill for B's

Hello, intrepid draft watchers! Here's a post that is sure to get some Eric Gudbranson fans talking. More on him later...

Had a quick conversation with Red Line Report's chief scout, Kyle Woodlief today, and floated the possibility of Jon Merrill with Boston's second first-round selection by him, and he disagreed with me a bit on that one, even though he concurred that the Bruins will in all likelihood be on the hunt for a defenseman with the next pick after they tab Tyler Seguin (his words, not mine) second overall.

Woodlief believes that Merrill is closer to 20 or lower on talent alone as opposed to 17 (and 17 is not a lock-- Bruins will drop to 27th at least with the possibility of falling lower if they beat the Flyers in the next round and keep winning), and with the off-ice stuff, Merrill could fall closer to 30.

In his mind, big and nasty yet mobile Moose Jaw Warriors defenseman Dylan McIlrath is the better fit for the B's at 17.

"He's their kind of 'D'," Woodlief said of McIlrath, who was given the nickname "the Monster from Winnipeg" this year and fought a lot throughout the season, striking fear into the hearts of opponents as a game and willing combatant.

"I don't know that I saw a guy who fought with more relish and enthusiasm than McIlrath did," said Red Line scout Mike Remmerde, who is one of two scouts who cover the West for that publication, earlier this season. "A lot of his fights came as the result of big, clean hits in the open ice where guys were pretty much forced to challenge him because he blew up their teammate."

Think of McIlrath as a defense-version of Milan Lucic, who was taken by the Bruins with the 50th overall selection four years ago. Lucic had some known warts (skating), but some upside as well, and was a feared fighter who brought legitimate toughness and big hitting to the mix. Lucic is coming off of a down year, but has evolved into a fan favorite in Beantown. Like Lucic, McIlrath has some drawbacks-- he doesn't have the kind of skill level to project much on the offensive side of the house, but he is a good skater with nice top-end speed both forwards and backwards. His agility isn't the greatest, but his overall mobility grades him a cut above other defenders who are slow-footed and become a liability against teams with a lot of speed to the outside.

"McIlrath is what they (Boston) need, and in my opinion, he's a better defenseman than Eric Gudbranson, who had a terrible (under-18) tournament," Woodlief said, having recently returned from Minsk, Belarus, where the best draft eligibles (minus those late '91 birthdates and those players still competing in the playoffs) gathered to test their mettle in the last international competition before the NHL lottery in June.

Uh-oh. Red meat alert.

That comment is sure to get some people talking, but in fairness to Red Line, they haven't had Gudbranson in their top-10 all season. Most of it was due to injuries that set the Kingston blue liner back in the early going, and then a double-whammy of a bout of mononucleosis which felled Gudbranson at mid-season, preventing him from competing in the annual CHL Top Prospects Game in January. Whether you disagree with Red Line's assessment of Gudbranson or not, they've not had him highly ranked all year, though Woodlief admitted today that he was hoping to see enough from Gudbranson in Belarus to move him up into the top-10 for the May rankings. Unfortunately, Team Canada's putrid seventh-place finish left a lot to be desired, and Gudbranson's performance fell squarely in line with many of his teammates, who simply couldn't get it done.

"Part of it was that it (Canada) was such a bad defense corps; the players themselves weren't very good to begin with," Woodlief said. "But Gudbranson is not an offensive, puckhandling defenseman, yet he was forced into that role and playing 30 minutes a night, where he committed a ton of turnovers. It was bad."

Make no mistake-- Gudbranson will go inside the the top-10 come draft day, and is pretty much a sure bet to go off the board before McIlrath does. Woodlief himself has admitted as much. But, since Red Line is not in the business of being a mock draft apparatus-- their list is done the way an NHL team conducts business-- the towering Frontenac wouldn't be the guy if Red Line had its druthers. Instead, Woodlief said, you're better off going with McIlrath, who doesn't carry nearly the hype, but is one tough son-of-a-gun who will give you every bit of what he has, yet isn't being billed as a two-way threat the way Gudbranson has.

You may not agree with that assessment, but having covered the draft for a long time, I'm here to say that there's a very good chance that Woodlief and his staff aren't alone in thinking that Gudbranson is not what others are projecting him to be. The difference is-- Red Line makes their views public and open to criticism, whereas most of the NHL opinions voiced in the dark rooms where they hold their myriad meetings throughout the season leading up to the draft will ever see the light of day. At least, not on the record and with said scouts' names attached to them.

So, as the popular saying goes-- Flame on!

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