If there's a classic example of why projecting prospects is as much art as it is science, it might be Brenden Dillon.
Here's some examples of scouting reports out there on him:
It's understandable that Dillon underwhelmed scouts and prospect-savvy reporters, at least for a while. He stood only 5-foot-3 at age 15 and played on relatively low-level youth hockey teams. His statistics were good but never the great numbers you expect from future NHL players. He was passed over in the WHL Bantam Draft and, later, three times in the NHL draft before finally signing with the Dallas Stars as an undrafted free agent.
Now, after his first full season in the NHL, it's easy to say that Dillon has far surpassed anyone's wildest expectations for him. Playing largely alongside Stephane Robidas, Dillon was among the Stars best all-around defenders this season, with three goals, five points and a plus-one rating in very difficult minutes.
In fact, when compared to all rookie defensemen in 2013, Dillon stacks up as one of the best. On the Stars, he faced the second-most difficult competition (to Robidas) and had the second most defensive zone starts (to Aaron Rome). He was a plus player both in traditional plus-minus and in Corsi ratings, and he brought a very solid physical edge to a smallish Stars blueline.
The keys to his success were many, from a good-sized frame that he grew into late to a solid first pass and decent point shot. His defensive instincts were aggressive and matched up nicely with Robidas' steady presence, and he was generally fairly smart about when it was time to take a risk to make a hit and when that would be a bad positional mistake.
I think his biggest asset was his fearlessness with the puck and with his willingness to step up and make a physical play. Many defensemen come into the NHL understandably tentative, not wanting to try to do something risky for the chance that the elite players at that level might burn them. Dillon had no such fear, or at least none that came through on the ice. In fact, you can argue that the Stars might want to rein him in a little more in some of his decisions (such as laying the body on a forward a half-second after he dumps the puck). That's far preferable to a player you have to constantly coach to do more.
Indeed, the biggest knock against DIllon this year is probably his undisciplined play. He led the Stars in unmatched minors, many of the preventable type, and had a particular problem with the NHL's crackdown on interference. Some of that is rookie exuberance, some of it is not knowing how to sell innocence in borderline moments and some of it is just the line he's trying to walk as a physical defenseman. He'll always take more penalties than many, but he definitely can make a few better decisions without hurting the rest of his game.
Dillon was also occasionally overly aggressive in his positioning and could get caught chasing the puck rather than guarding a dangerous area of the ice. Again, this isn't a huge concern, especially for a first-year player, but it is an area he can grow in during the next few years.
And that's the real question for Dillon - what will his next step be. Ever since being passed over for the WHL draft, Dillon has done nothing but steadily improve. But an NHL sophomore season, especially for a defenseman, is a notoriously difficult year. Other teams have a better scouting report on tendencies and there are now expectations to live up to, which often leads to the traditional sophomore slump. You could even argue that Dillon went through a little bit of this as the season went on. It certainly got more difficult for him to move the puck up the ice once teams got wind of the fact that he was pretty good at it.
If we were handing out traditional grades, Dillon would unquestionably get top marks for this season. As Stars fans have found over the past few seasons, it's extremely difficult to even find serviceable NHL defensemen at times, let alone ones that excel in the most difficult minutes. For a rookie to come in and perform at that level is pretty astounding.
Dillon is supposed to be the first player in the next wave of Stars defensemen (though going back to that unpredictability of scouting thing, Philip Larsen was supposed to be that player for a while, and before him the trio of Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossmann and Mark Fistric held that title). With more youngsters coming up behind him, Dillon will have to continue to improve so that they might follow in his footsteps of a quick and seemingly painless adjustment to the NHL.
It's a tall task, but if there's one thing we've learned about Dillon over the years, it's that he seems to rise to every occasion.