Allow us a few moments of hyperbolic exuberance.
Two years ago when the Dallas Stars signed defenseman Brenden Dillon to an entry-level contract out of the WHL, it barely registered on our radar. Here was a player that had been overlooked in the CHL draft and in the NHL draft and while he certainly had a good season that year with the Seattle Thunderbirds, there really wasn't much at the time about Dillon that truly stood out.
This was just another depth signing by the Stars, who at the time had little flash and skill when it came to defensive prospects. Dillon was expected to help the Texas Stars and not much was considered beyond that.
Dillon appeared in ten games for the Texas Stars at the end of the 2010-2011 season and then six games in the playoffs, in what was to be Glen Gulutzan's last hurrah in Austin before being promoted to Dallas.
Dillon had no points in the regular season and just two assists in the playoffs but the impact he made on that team was far greater than anyone anticipated.He could skate, he could move the puck smartly and he was physical. More than anything else, however, Dillon was a leader.
"I was just kind of seeing where I'd fit in," Dillon told us back in the summer of 2011. "I got down there and I was one of those guys who was bright eyed and wanting to learn as much as I could. I was fortunate enough where I was able to go in and play some games and kind of just did what I could to show how well I could play and I think I did a good job there and got rewarded with some more ice time. I was lucky enough to get put into some of those [playoff] positions so it was awesome."
After just 16 games in the AHL, Dillon was quickly considered to be a rising star in the organization, a player who could potentially crack the NHL lineup sooner than most expected. Dillon would play in 76 games for Texas during a tumultuous 2011-2012 season slowly but steadily improved as the year progressed, getting the chance to make his NHL debut in the final game of the regular season for the Dallas Stars.
The improvement continued during the NHL lockout, playing for coach Willie Desjardins in Austin and taking over as the top defenseman for the Texas Stars. Dillon had been seen as an almost-certainty to make the NHL roster if and when the season would begin and the speculation proved true; Dillon has appeared in all 22 games this season for the Dallas Stars.
What's more, Dillon has now solidified his place on the top pairing for the Stars and has almost certainly been the most consistent and dynamic defenseman in Dallas this season.
After bouncing around a few pairing options to start the year, Dillon was eventually moved up to play next to Stephane Robidas as the Stars sought to find the best chemistry for the defensemen with three rookies getting significant playing time this season. While the Stars had started off rolling all three pairs nearly the same in ice time, Dillon and Robidas have been leaned on more heavily in past games -- and has succeeded admirably.
On Sunday afternoon against the Blues, Dillon showcased just how dynamic he can be on the blue line with ten hits and four blocked shots -- he and Robidas combined for more than 50 minutes of ice time in the game.
There is a lot of discussion these days about Dillon's play on the ice but it's what happens off the ice that truly makes Dillon stand out. He came to Dallas as a player with a reputation as having an exceptional work ethic and a drive that won't allow him to ever slow down -- he's constantly working to improve from one game to the next. It's hard to believe that Dillon is just 23 games into his NHL career and he acknowledges that he's far from where ultimately wants to be as a player for the Stars.
"There's definitely another level for me," Dillon told Defending Big D after Sunday's win. "I think that I'm pretty young so far coming in my career, 22-23 games, and I think every day I'm learning new things that can help me, whether that's a little pass here or there or a little move or way to move my body. I think there's definitely room to grow, but I'm happy with how things have gone so far, and I'm looking forward to more in the future."
It's understandable why Dillon has quickly become such a favorite among fans, aside from his inspiring play on the ice. Dillon is a player who has more than earned his spot in the NHL, who used hard work and perseverance more than just pure skill to get to this point in his young career. More than anything, Dillon is an extremely humble person who reuses to take anything for granted and understands just what it will take to succeed at this level.
"Just some hard work," Dillon stated rather quietly when asked about what has led to his fast rise through the system. "I don't know... I've tried from day one just to work every day to be as good of a hockey player as I can, whether that means staying out to do some things or working on the parts of my game that needed to be worked on, just from day one I've wanted to be playing with the best players in the world, and that's what the NHL is all about."
Once again, when asked about himself and his own personal success, Dillon deflects the praise back to his coaches and teammates.
"I've had some great coaches and a lot of great players that I've played with that have really helped me to get in this point in my life now," said Dillon. "I'm just trying to keep it simple. We've got so many good players on our team that make it easy to do. I'm just trying to chip in when I can and play my game."
The Dallas Stars have been on a search for a top pairing defenseman to build the franchise around for quite some time. Jamie Oleksiak was drafted in 2011 with that potential and while he is performing adequately in the NHL so far, he's still a bit away from truly taking up that mantle and running with it. Meanwhile, Dillon has proven that he is almost certainly going to big part of the future of this franchise and presents a truly comprehensive case for becoming the long-term No. 2 defenseman on this team -- no matter who his partner might be.
The rookie defenseman leads the team with 30 blocked shots and 67 hits and leads all defensemen with 40 shots on goal. His ability to play hard and tough in his own zone and willingness to lay out physical punishment, combined with an innate ability to play aggressive at the right moments on offense, has built Dillon into the true two-way threat he stated he wanted to be two years ago.
Dillon's game is far from perfect, however. He's just 23 games into his NHL career and the mistakes will happen; on Sunday night, Dillon kicked a shot attempt right onto the stick of David Perron, who then danced around Dillon and the entire defense to score the opening goal of the game. Dillon also has found himself guilty of perhaps playing with too much enthusiasm and now finds himself with the most penalty minutes on the team -- bolstered by three fights -- while attempting to find a good balance between playing physical and how the NHL officiating is enforcing the game this season.
"It's a tough play for me," said Dillon on the interference penalties. "I want to be a physical defenseman and finish my checks. I think there definitely ratcheting it up on that penalty and on all penalties. You get your stick up on a guy and even touch him for a second and it seems to be a hook or a trip or whatever it might be. I think for myself especially, I have to focus and bear down on that because you can't be taking penalties, especially in tight games like this. And I think we've been better the last couple games.
"We've definitely talked about it there to where especially us defenseman you can't make that play. It's almost as soon as that guy chips it, you've got to turn and try and take the ice that he has, and that's about it."
There has been a lot of discussion about the future leadership of the Dallas Stars and who will take over the locker room if and when players like Robidas and Brenden Morrow depart. Jamie Benn, Trevor Daley and Loui Eriksson are mentioned yet Dillon is a player who should also be looked upon to help lead the franchise forward. Dillon is unassuming and humble yet has a commanding and charismatic presence -- always willing to talk to the media and generally one of the more enthusiastic players in the locker room.
He's only 23 games into his NHL career but it's tough to ignore just how special a player Dillon is quickly becoming. For a team that has been struggling to find the right answer on defense -- and has traded three former first round picks in Fistric, Grossmann and Niskanen in the past two years -- it's amazing to think that at least part of that answer was there all along in Pacific Northwest, just waiting for his chance to shine.