Analysis this summer when it comes to the Dallas Stars has been mostly focused on the forwards, with the team hoping to address significant needs both at center as well as for a top-six forward to help better balance the roster. This is in stark contrast to the past few offseasons when the defense was the main source of consternation and worry for Stars fans, with the team spending some of the least amount of money in the NHL on their blueline.
Here in 2012, the defense still remains an aspect of the team that needs to be addressed -- but the situation is nowhere near as dire as it was just a few years ago. The addition of Alex Goligoski and the emergence of Philip Larsen as a legitimate NHL defenseman has helped bolster the defensive corps, and the Stars focus on the position in the draft since 2010 has a number of promising prospects just a few steps away from the NHL.
One part of this building plan for the future is Brenden Dillon, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Stars last spring after a dynamo fourth season in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Passed up in not just the WHL draft but the NHL draft as well, Dillon exploded in 2010-11 with eight goals and 51 assists in 72 games and was the second-highest scoring player on his team. This big jump in production garnered the interest of a number of pro teams, with Dillon deciding that Dallas was the right choice for his future.
Once an undersized defenseman with limited offensive skills, Dillon has developed into a well-rounded, physical player with decent offensive skill. This skillset that has taken Dillon from undrafted hockey player to one that could become a major part of the Dallas Stars defense in just a few short years, and possibly as soon as this coming season.
When Brenden Dillon was 15, he was eligible to be drafted in the WHL draft out of his native British Columbia. The 5-2 defenseman, however, didn't possess the size and skill that most teams covet when scouting players for the major juniors in Canada. Being passed over in the draft started the process of Dillon taking the mindset of always having to prove himself, of never taking anything for granted and always working to prove himself.
Dillon would eventually sign with the Seattle Thunderbirds, scoring just 35 points his first three seasons across 108 games. This lack of production and once again, his lack of size, contributed to Dillon being overlooked once more -- this time in the NHL draft. Between that third and fourth season, however, Dillon took significant strides in his development and suddenly found not just his offensive game but his ability to be an effective defenseman in both ends of the ice.
It also helped that Dillon has gone from a diminutive hockey player to a strong, physical defenseman at 6-2 and 200 pounds.
"I was always a lot shorter than the rest of guys I grew up playing with and I really think that helped me on the ice with my skating," Dillon recently told Defending Big D. "I was playing with guys that were bigger than me and stronger than me. Getting passed over in [the drafts], I really have no hard feelings -- I just moved on with a chip on my shoulder, something to prove. From day one, when I started playing and just like every other hockey player, my dream was to play in the NHL. I really wanted to follow through on that and I really want to help a team win a Stanley Cup. I'm happy to be a part of the Dallas Stars organization and hopefully we can do that."
The chip on the shoulder that Dillon mentions is evident in how he approaches his game these days, always looking to learn and improve and strive to really find just what sort of defenseman he really is. Last season, after Dillon's season in the WHL was concluded, he turned heads in Austin by stepping into major minutes in the AHL playoffs and performing extremely well.
Dillon received significant attention in training camp and the preseason last year and while there were thoughts he could have pushed for an NHL roster spot, it was apparent he still needed valuable development time in Austin. It was certainly a learning curve for Dillon who, even as a "late bloomer" is still relatively young and won't turn 22 until this fall. After a bit of a slow start to the season, Dillon turned a major corner and was easily the best defenseman on the ice for the Texas Stars by the end of the season.
"Just from the start of the year to the end, for this being my first full year, I really learned a lot and just started really finding my game as a pro," said Dillon. "I think that's a big part of being a pro and making it at the NHL level, you fit into a mold and you fit into...it basically becomes a job. You could be a offensive defenseman or a defensive defenseman and I think for myself I found that. I think I was able to see that I am capable of rushing the puck up, I can't be that guy that's just comfortable in my own zone -- I have to find that balance.
There were some thoughts that, after his 59-point season in the WHL, Dillon could be an eventual offensive boost from the blue line for the Dallas Stars. After a full season in the AHL it's clear -- and to Dillon as well -- that his strength truly lies in being a solid defenseman in his own zone who is able to effectively move the puck up the ice, without the pressures of having to put up big numbers from the blueline.
Dillon plays bigger than his size would indicate and he's more than capable of playing physical in the corners and in front of the net, yet still possesses the skating and puck skills to make that aggressive move on offense that all teams want to see in their defensemen.
The Dallas Stars briefly called up Dillon at the mid-point of the season around the Holidays, who spent a week or so with the team yet never got the call to suit up for a game. The Stars not playing Dillon at the time seemed odd, especially for those that were eager to see him prove himself at the NHL level, but it's clear the callup was not just about depth for the Stars -- it was about providing an invaluable experience for the young defenseman.
"People can say this and that about the NHL level but unless you're actually there, watching games, being around those guys and that atmosphere and really learning...just the team as a whole, it's something you can't really learn without being there," said Dillon, when asked about his mid-season callup. "I think that really helped me, and the second time around going up there at the end of the year really let me become more comfortable and allowed me to really be myself up there."
The Stars have done this before with young players, calling up promising prospects to give them a taste of what it takes to succeed in the NHL. Dillon spoke about how different the atmosphere was in Dallas, how professional all of the players were in their approach to the game. It was an experience that obviously had a significant impact on Dillon, who went on to have a much better second half of the season compared to his first few months.
That strong finish gave him the chance to appear in the final game of the season for the Stars, at home against the St. Louis Blues. The Stars played a number of prospects in the game but it was Dillon who impressed the most above all else, playing just under 20 minutes and leading the team with six shots on goal. It was the perfect display for the skillset that Dillon has built, as he was extremely physical in his own end yet confident moving the puck up the ice.
Overall, it was a heck of a year for the young defenseman, a player that has been overlooked at every level of his development yet has more than a chance at earning an NHL spot this next season out of training camp. With the Stars looking to get younger and deeper on defense, Dillon represent the sort of well-rounded and intelligent defenseman that Stars will always need on the roster.
More than anything, this past year was a showcase for the work ethic and drive that has led Dillon from an undrafted junior hockey player to one of the more promising prospects in the Dallas Stars organization. He knows he's not done learning and improving, however, and constantly spoke of the lessons learned during this past season of hockey.
"Seeing the ups and downs of the year, winning some games and losing some games, I found that I really have to be a player every single game and the amount of hard work it takes to really be successful," said Dillon. "I think over the course of the year and playing games and then finishing out the year playing against the best players in the world, and to be guided by the management and the coaching staff that is part of Dallas has really paved the way for success."