I sat down with Brenden Dillon to discuss his unique path to the professional level, the turning point in his career, and which current NHL defenseman he tries to model his game after.
His story is an interesting one. A prototypical late bloomer, Dillon was passed over as a 15-year-old at the WHL Bantam Draft and again as an 18-year-old at the NHL Draft. He was forced to rely on skating and positioning to succeed against bigger and stronger forwards as a teenager. The 21-year-old Dillon now stands in at 6-3 and well over 200 pounds, and has gone from WHL standout to a NHL hopeful in a little over a year.
I profiled him a few weeks ago – you can find that column here.
Dillon was signed by Dallas in the summer of 2011 after a four year career in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds. He recently wrapped up a very successful rookie season in the AHL with the Texas Stars, earning the call up to Dallas for their final regular season game.
Angus: Brenden, your story is quite remarkable. I compared you to Chris Tanev a column I wrote a few weeks ago. Like you, Tanev was overlooked as a teenager due to a lack of size. Do you think having that late growth spurt could be something that helps you in the long run?
Dillon: For sure. I was always smaller than the guy next to me, especially forwards, all the way through Atom, Peewee, and Bantam. You have to find different ways to compete at the highest level.
Skating has always been my number one thing, and now that the size has caught up, I hope it is all going to come together.
The main reason you were signed by Dallas in 2011 was your last year in the WHL. Looking at your first few years production-wise compared to that fourth year… what changed? What was different?
(Dillon’s production skyrocketed from 14 points in 2009-10 to 59 in 2010-11.)
I think it was heading into that summer of 2010. I saw myself as a hockey player, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was able to take that mentality and put it together with the opportunity I was given in Seattle in that final year. Rob Summer (the former head coach of the Thunderbirds) and those guys really gave me an opportunity to show myself on the power play and penalty kill.
And from there, with confidence came some results.
Was it that final season when you figured you were going to get an NHL contract?
I think it was in my third year with Seattle. My draft year at 18 didn’t go as I would have hoped, and going home that summer and not getting drafted was a big wakeup call.
That summer I was invited to an NHL camp (by the Pittsburgh Penguins), and it was good to see where I was at compared to other top prospects. It opened my eyes and I knew I had a lot of work to do. All of their top prospects were there, and Crosby was walking around. That was pretty cool. I hope to be able to play against him at the NHL level one day.
What happened in that third season that seemed to change things?
Coming back to junior that fall, at the start of that year it didn’t really click in for me until Christmas. I think I only had four or five points in the first half, nothing really in terms of physical play. At that time, I told myself that I had basically a year and a half left to prove myself to NHL teams, and there was nothing to lose.
With that mindset shift came some success. I had 10 or 12 points in the second half of the season. Heading into that summer, my exit meeting with the coaching staff was really positive in terms of what I showed I could do. Looking back at where I am now, I think that Christmas was a big turning point in my career.
You played against some pretty good players in the WHL, especially down the road in Portland. Who were the toughest forwards to defend against during your time with Seattle?
Ryan Johansen with Portland is one. He is a guy who I train with during the summers. Oscar Moller in my first few years was another. It’s a really good league.
The WHL does a tremendous job preparing you for the pros in terms of number of games, and the structure and physicality. Would you agree?
I’d agree with that. Those 30+ hour bus rides to Brandon, you really have to have the desire to play hockey. It’s that mental toughness – if you want to go to the next level, you have to throw everything into it.
And as you said, it prepares you well. Going from 72 games in the WHL, to 76 in the AHL, to 82 in the NHL, it’s not too big of a jump, especially if you look at it from a college standpoint.
What was the number one difference between playing defense in the AHL compared to the WHL?
The biggest thing overall is the mentality that the guys have. In junior, you go to the rink, you work hard, and you come home and play video games and hang out with the guys. At the pro level, hockey is a full-time job. Every puck battle, the attention to detail, I think that was the biggest thing.
You make one mistake defensively at the AHL level or the NHL and the puck is in the back of your net.
What was your role with Texas to start 2011-12? How did it change over the course of the season?
It’s like any league, as a first year guy you have to work your way up. When I came to Texas I wanted to show myself as a good two-way defenseman. I understood that I was going to have to come in and prove myself.
It was a lot of fun there this year. The coaching staff and the older guys on the team were great to me.
Who did you room with down in Austin?
I was with Matt Fraser, another WHL guy like me.
And he was undrafted, like you. Were you familiar with him at all from your days in Seattle?
Not really. We played against each other a few times, and he was on some really good Kootenay teams (the Ice won the WHL Championship in 2010-11). I remember one game they were beating us pretty bad and I was trying to get him to go.
He signed with Dallas a few months before I did, and I remember running in to him at the prospects camp last summer. Was a bit awkward at first, as the last time our paths crossed I was trying to fight him. But that’s hockey, and he’s now a good friend.
How would you describe your game? Is there a defenseman who you try and model your game after? Skating is your best asset, which is probably rare for someone who is 6-3.
I want to be a big two-way defenseman, and a guy I look up to is Shea Weber. He is a guy who does it all – plays physical, kills penalties, plays on the power play. It’s tough to compare yourself to someone who is as good of a player as he is.
Always good to set the goal high.
Exactly. When I hopefully get to the NHL full-time I want to contribute and be an impact player. Weber’s a guy who makes an impact every time he is on the ice.
You played in your first NHL game with the Stars last year. What was that experience like?
It was an unfortunate situation with the Stars being out of the playoffs. I would have liked to go in when we were making a Cup run. That being said, it was pretty unbelievable. To play against St. Louis, who was battling for a Presidents’ Trophy, and they had all of their big guys in, it was exciting.
On my first shift I took a pretty big hit behind the net. I dusted myself off, got to the bench. My welcome to the NHL moment. I got to play a lot too, which was great.
(Dillon played 20 minutes during his NHL debut.)
You played briefly under Glen Gulutzan at the end of the 2010-11 season in Texas. Did having that level of familiarity help when you got the call up?
Everyone has a role, and that really helped with my adjustment to the AHL, and then when I came up to Dallas too.
You are in town (Vancouver) until the end of June. How is the training going? Where are you training?
Right now I train in Langley with Tim Preston at Impact Hockey. I’ve been there since I was 16. A couple of other pros train there, like Ryan Johansen and Colton Gilles, as well as some Division I college guys. Tim does great work there.
I have my Dallas program from Brad Jellis (the Stars Strength & Conditioning coach) and I’m really looking forward to next year.
Is there any different focus this summer to your workouts?
You want to get to the next level. Putting on a couple pounds, mobility, it really is everything.
Nutrition is a big part too.
Dallas is so good with educating everybody, and giving everybody the best chance to improve. We had Gary Roberts in at development camp showing us everything; we went around a Whole Foods for a few hours learning about what foods to eat and what not to eat.
And obviously with the on-ice stuff, nutrition and hydration are so crucial as well.
What is the rest of your summer like?
I head down to Dallas for their prospect camp in early July. Last year was my first camp, and I was like a sponge trying to soak everything in.
And you have your eyes on a roster spot in Dallas?
For sure. Every summer with trades, and free agency, and what not, and especially this summer with the CBA not settled, I am just looking to control what I can control.
Working hard, coming to camp ready, which is really all I can do. That is my goal though; I want to be on the Dallas Stars.
But if I have to go back to the AHL, whatever it takes to get there, I’m willing to do it.
I don’t think you’ll have to wait too long. Thanks for the interview, Brenden.