Brenden Dillon – The Next Big D in Big D?

Brenden Dillon Dallas Stars

Getting overlooked is nothing new to Dallas prospect Brenden Dillon. Being passed over at multiple NHL Entry Drafts wasn’t his first taste of disappointment, either. Dillon was overlooked as a 15-year old by every WHL team in the Bantam Draft for being too small.

“I remember the whole thing. I was sitting with my dad, we were watching it on the computer screen, 15 rounds went by and I had been passed over,” Dillon said of the WHL draft. “It was one of those things where everyone was over six feet tall and I was there at 5-2.”

Dillon’s story is similar to that of Chris Tanev. Tanev, the cool-as-a-cucumber defenseman on the Canucks, was passed over as a youngster for lack of size and strength (like Dillon, Tanev stood in at barely over five feet tall when he was 15). He had a late growth spurt, spent one year in college, and found himself playing in the Stanley Cup Final less than a year after that. Tanev is now 6-2 and adding weight to his frame.

Both players are beginning to reap the rewards of the unique developmental paths they took. Because of a lack of size and strength, Dillon and Tanev had to learn to use their sticks, body position, skating, and instincts to defend against much bigger forwards.

Dillon eventually caught on in the WHL, with the Seattle Thunderbirds. During his first three years in Seattle, he settled in as one of the better defensive defensemen in the WHL, but NHL teams didn’t pay much attention. Most in the hockey world though Dillon had little skill and limited upside, and his production didn’t prove otherwise.

In his first three WHL seasons (208 games), Dillon recorded only three goals and 35 points. What he did in his fourth season is what got him noticed by NHL teams, and ultimately the Dallas Stars, who signed Dillon in the summer of 2011.

It took Dillon’s offensive game three years to blossom, but the old adage of ‘better late than never’ rang true once again. In 2010-11 with Seattle, he emerged as a top two-way defenseman in the league. He honed his defensive craft playing regularly against Sven Bartschi, Ryan Johansen, and Nino Niederreiter, who all played down the highway in Portland. That season, Dillon scored eight goals and added 51 assists in 72 games. To put his eight-goal, 59-point season in perspective, Dillon’s previous career high in the WHL was two goals and 14 points.

Scouts didn’t believe Dillon had the skill level to develop into an NHL defenseman. For Dillon, 2010-11 was all about proving the doubters wrong. Lack of production at the junior level is a warning sign, even for defensive defensemen and checking line forwards. Dillon seemed destined for a career that would fall short of the NHL until 2010-11.

The Thunderbirds went 19-41-12 in 2009-10 (Dillon’s 14-point campaign), and they finished 2010-11 with a slightly better record of 27-35-10. Both of those Thunderbird teams were devoid of high-end talent, as the below-average records would indicate. Dillon’s 59-point season was even more impressive considering only one other player on the roster (right wing Burke Gallimore) outscored him.

Oh, and did I mention that Dillon is now 6-3 and over 210 pounds?

Dillon carried over his strong play to the AHL, where he finished his 2010-11 season playing just outside of Austin for the Texas Stars. Mark from Andrew’s Stars Page liked what he saw out of Dillon as an AHL rookie. From April of 2011:

“Dillon… looks like a player. He’s paired with veteran Maxime Fortunus and is logging pretty substantial minutes for the Stars. That’s impressive for a 20-year-old just out of junior who joined Texas late in the regular season and had just ten AHL games under his belt coming into these playoffs. He moves the move puck pretty well, looks solid defensively and has a bit of an edge to his game. There were a lot of NHL teams interested in signing him and it’s pretty evident why. He looks like he could be a solid NHL defenseman down the road.”

In his first full professional season, Dillon excelled in Texas, scoring six goals, adding in 23 assists, and recording 97 PIM in 76 games, ranking him second in scoring among Texas defensemen. He even got a small taste of NHL action, suiting up for the season finale with Dallas. It wasn’t a bad debut, either.

“The 21-year-old had a game-high six shots on goal, tied for a game-high four hits and co-led the Stars with three blocked shots in 19:59 of ice time in the Stars’ 3-2 loss to St. Louis.”

Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan coached Dillon briefly at the end of the 2010-11 season, and he also liked what he saw.

““I thought his game was strong,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “I can see he’s made strides from when I had him a year ago (in the AHL). I think you guys can judge for yourselves, but I think he’s going to be right around [the Dallas roster] come September.”

Team owner Tom Gaglardi believes in a long-term winning philosophy with a focus on drafting and player development. The Stars never drafted Dillon, but they have to love how far he has come as a hockey player in the past two years. Dillon is a late-bloomer in every sense of the word. Pegged as a WHL defensive defenseman with limited skill and minimal upside as recently as three years ago, he is now a standout defenseman in the AHL and will push for a roster spot in the NHL this fall.

Les Jackson, the Stars Director of Player Personnel, expects Dillon to be in the mix for a roster spot:

“Brenden is right around the big team, I would say. The last couple of years have really been good for him. The last year in Seattle he took a really big step. This year he carried a lot of key minutes and played in a lot of key situations down there. He had his moments where he had his hardships, but overall it was a very positive year for him. I’d say he’s knocking on the door to make the big team in September.”

The Stars will do their best to add a capable top four defenseman this summer. Whether they take a home run swing at Ryan Suter, or they scour the free agency market or the trade block for a less-sought-after player, they would like to add another defenseman capable of playing 20+ minutes in all situations. Ideally Trevor Daley is a second pairing defenseman, while Alex Goligoski needs a steady partner in order to contribute his fullest offensively. After those two, the defense thins out considerably, especially with the trade of Niklas Grossman to Philadelphia (Grossman was slated to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and Dallas figured they wouldn’t be able to sign him). Grossman was a revelation for the injury-ravaged Flyers, and the team quickly locked him up to a four-year, $14 million extension.

Stephane Robidas has two years left at $3.3 million per. He is a capable veteran defenseman, but the wear and tear of his physical style of play is beginning to take its toll. Adam Pardy, signed as a free agent last summer from Calgary, has been a disappointment, and he has another year and $2 million left on his contract. Mark Fistric, a physical force, is a restricted free agent this summer, as is Philip Larsen, who was a mainstay in the top four by the end of the season. Assuming those two are re-signed, the defense could shake out as:

UFA/Trade – Goligoski

Philip Larsen – Trevor Daley

Stephane Robidas – Brenden Dillon

Mark Fistric

 

The open spot on the top pairing could be filled internally. Dallas could slide Robidas up there, but he is better suited for third-pairing duty at this point in his career. Jamie Benn’s brother Jordie is also in the mix, although he is behind Dillon on the depth chart.

Dillon isn’t a lock for the roster, and good teams don’t win consistently by promising ice time to young players who haven’t earned it. However, he should be considered the odds-on favorite to crack the roster. Stars play-by-play announcer Ralph Strangis is also a big Dillon fan:

“He looks ready – and in fact – comparatively looked way ahead of the other young prospects.”

Dillon is now a physical presence on the ice, but skating remains his best attribute. He had to learn to skate better than other players because of his lack of size as a teenager. His growth spurt has taken care of the size/strength deficiency, and his mobility didn’t suffer at all.

Stylistically, Dillon doesn’t really compare to any current Dallas defensemen. He is much bigger than Goligoski, Daley and Robidas, and he is much more mobile than Fistric or Pardy (the Stars would love it if he started to play with some of Fistric’s snarl). If Dillon does crack the roster this fall, expect him to start off in a depth role with a focus on defense. Young defensemen need to figure out their own end first (although there are exceptions). With good defensive play comes ice time, and with ice time comes offensive opportunities.

One thing is for certain – the days of Dillon being overlooked are over.