It's easy to forget that Brenden Dillon is at the dawn of his NHL career.
Dillon, who will reach the equivalent of one full season in the NHL tonight with his 82nd career game, was a revelation as a rookie, an undrafted free agent who settled right into the NHL and quickly became one of the best rookie defensemen in the league. He played some of the toughest minutes on the team - and indeed, some of the toughest minutes of any rookie defenseman - and excelled.
That success came alongside Stephane Robidas both on and off the ice. The rookie and veteran were essentially a season-long defensive pair, and Dillon also took up residence at the Robidas' household as he got settled into being an NHL player. Much was made of their chemistry and student-mentor relationship.
So when Robidas went down in late November with a broken tibia, Lindy Ruff told the veteran defenseman it was time to see the fruits of that mentorship pay off.
"I had a long text conversation with (Robidas)," Ruff said. "I actually sent a picture of him when he scored the other night, and he was in (Brenden Dillon’s) arms and I told him that Diller said he would carry you the rest of the year."
Dillon has been trying very hard to do just that in the eight games since Robidas' injury. But in the vein of several other Stars players at the moment, perhaps he's trying too hard to make a positive impact.
Before Robidas went down with the injury, Dillon was cruising right along in his sophomore season. He had four goals and five assists in 24 games with a plus-8 rating, 40 shots and 29 penalty minutes (seven of those accounted for by minor penalties). He was a part of the Stars best defensive pairing and near the top of the team in many advanced possession metrics. And while he had some small mental lapses, he was generally continuing to play very well.
The loss of Robidas appears to have sent Dillon into a bit of a tailspin. In the eight games since the injury, Dillon has one assist and a minus-3 rating on seven shots with 22 penalty minutes (six of those accounted for by minors). The advanced statistics tell the same story. Dillon is slowly sliding down the list of Corsi and Corsi Rel. He now sits fourth among defensemen with at least 20 games played in both categories.
To make matters worse, he's put the Stars on an extended 5-on-3 against for each of the past four games, a pretty mind-boggling little run. And he's been making some costly decisions in the offensive zone as well, pinching with abandon in an attempt to generate some offense which has led to odd-man rushes and goals against.
Several of the penalties that put the Stars down 5-on-3 have been ones where it appears he was trying to do too much. Take the one against the Nashville Predators near the end of the first period, which turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit headed into the intermission.
Dillon got the puck off a faceoff win and, instead of simply firing it down the rink low and off the boards, waited a beat for the Predators to make a move (and to let that extra second tick off the clock). Then he tried to wire it over the oncoming pressure and off the high glass down to the Predators end. But he got too far under the puck and sent it over the glass at the other end of the rink, an automatic delay of game.
As we discussed when talking about Jamie Benn last week, there's a really fine line between giving every game your best effort and getting in your own way by trying too hard to make things happen. When thing start to go south, most professional athletes are mentally programmed to try and work harder to turn things around.
But especially on defense, working harder doesn't always get you to where you need to be. You have to work smarter.
If you'll allow me to switch sports here for an analogy, back when I covered football, coaches were always harping on their defense to play "assignment football," where each player had one job to do on a given offensive play and was expected to do it every single time that play came around. The concept, especially with younger players, would fall apart when a well-meaning linebacker or end or nose tackle saw something develop and was sure he needed to make the play in order to get a stop. He left his assignment to try and do too much, which then caused a chain reaction down the line, and the defense fell apart because one (or more) players tried to do more than just their job. The lesson coaches want players to take away from that catchphrase is do your own job - it's there for a reason.
Bringing that to hockey, where there are infinitely more reads that have to be made in the free-flowing game, the concept still applies. Defensemen in particular have to worry about doing their own job first and foremost. When they start concerning themselves with making the big play, bad things start to happen. Good defense (and even good offense that comes from the blue line) starts with taking care of your own business first.
What makes Robidas such a good defensemen is that he is able to do that with great consistency. Robidas excels at making the smart play at the smart time. Sure, he will get beat by a guy with better footspeed or a great move, but he makes the right read at the right time. He doesn't gamble trying to make the big play; he makes the odds-on one to give himself the best chance of success even if it doesn't have the highest potential reward.
Dillon, in his attempts to be the big, bruising, physical defensive presence the Stars need him to be with so much youth in the lineup (and the veteran defense solidly concentrated on the puck-handling end), has strayed from that style into a risk-reward game. He wants to make key keeps and big hits and crafty, time-wasting plays on the penalty kill. He's always had a little of that risk-reward demon in him, but playing with Robidas really kept that in check.
So instead of trying to make up for the loss of Robidas (and Trevor Daley and Aaron Rome now) by making the high-reward play, I think the key for Dillon might be to approach in-game situations as Robidas would have approached them, minimizing risk rather than maximizing reward. Once he gets back to that type of game, then he can go back to trying to pick the spots where he can take the worthwhile risk. He showed last season that he has a knack for such things - it's just all about making sure it's well timed.
Because risk in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but playing with fire too often within a game, especially when your team is already struggling around you, is only going to get you repeatedly burned.