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The Dynamic of Dilly

by Ross McKeon / sjsharks.com

Every team has its high-end, skilled players who make it look so easy as they skate up and down the ice with the puck on a string.

Every team has its star goaltender, the most important and relied upon position especially when the regular season ends in early spring and turns to the most important, pressure-packed contests that hopefully last into early summer.

Every team has its vocal leaders who have been captains all their lives from peewee hockey to the NHL. They're the locker room heartbeat of the team, and conduit from the coaching staff to the players and the person most likely to speak up when something needs to be said.

And every team has that hard-working, sometimes under-appreciated member who works his tail off to get better from one season to the next. The player who really embodies the heart and soul of a winning organization. The player who isn't missed until he's suddenly out of the lineup.

That person on the San Jose Sharks is Brenden Dillon.

"I understand and enjoy my role, but I'm always looking at little things to get better," Dillon said.

To that end, the 28-year-old native of New Westminster, British Columbia, has used the last two off-seasons to study the tendencies of the league's best defensemen and applied what fits his skill set into his game. The result is Dillon reeling off a career-best campaign two years ago only to be topped by the most recent season. 

As the game continues to change and evolve with faster, slipperier offensive threats on virtually all four offensive lines now, Dillon continues to mold his game into what works into today's NHL.

"It sounds cliché but once the season ends you think about what you can do in the offseason to improve your game," Dillon said. "I watched a lot of film of the best defensemen in the league - Victor Hedman in Tampa - and our three - Burnzie, Vlasic and Erik (Karlsson) - and tried to incorporate little things they do into my game."

"You always want to improve as you get older and find things that work in your game," he added. "I know I can use size to my advantage and my skating has improved. I really wanted to add more of an offensive side to my game the last two seasons."

And the numbers prove Dillon has done just that.

With the system on defense Sharks coach Peter DeBoer wants to employ - a mobile back unit which moves the puck quickly out of the zone and jumps into holes on the offensive end to create odd-man chances the opponent has little time to sort out - Dillon has really picked up on the theme.

In 2017-18 Dillon scored five goals and 17 assists for 22 points, all more than double the numbers produced in each category over his three previous seasons in San Jose. Then in 2018-19, and often paired with the offensively dynamic Karlsson, Dillon picked up a few more tricks of the trade to post a career-high 21 assists and tie his point total from the previous season. And he missed only one of 164 games over the last two seasons.

"Erik and I don't want to just be a shutdown pair, we want to play up the ice as much as possible and put pressure on the other team," Dillon said. "He's an incredible talent just like all the other partners I've had here."

Two of the areas Dillon really improved this season is the employment of the stretch pass and his accountability in the defensive zone that led to a career-best plus-19 rating, a leading figure not only on the blue line but for the team as well.

Part of Dillon's offseason assessment of his game was to be sound positionally and not get caught trying to do too much in the defensive zone.

"I've always been thought of a physical defenseman who is hard to play against," Dillon said. "I can get emotional and run around at times, and that's something I think I did less of this season."

Dillon's ascension to a four-year high of averaging 17:45 of ice time didn't start just two years ago. It began as soon as he was traded for the first time in his career from the Dallas Stars early in 2014-15 for Jason Demers and a draft pick in a swap of rear guards.

Dillon was 24 and had 149 games of NHL experience under his belt with the Stars. The trade did catch him a bit off-guard since he was averaging 20 minutes a night over parts of four seasons with Dallas. It was a time of self-reflection for Dillon.

"When I got traded from Dallas I wanted to prove to the Sharks and the hockey world what I could do in this league, and that I could stick long-term," Dillon said. "It wasn't easy to earn minutes with all the great players we've had on the blue line when I got here starting with Scott Hannan, Dan Boyle and Pickles [Vlasic]. I knew I had to be consistent and improve to keep my minutes."

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound defenseman's excellent work is not confined to a sheet of ice, however. Because getting involved in the community is something most players enjoy doing, he has a hand in several programs to benefit the youth locally.

For all his efforts this season, Dillon was the Sharks' nominee for the 2019 King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community.

"We're lucky to play hockey for a living, and I love being a hockey player," Dillon said. "While we're busy, we also have some down time and I enjoy working with the kids and the Sharks Foundation to bring a smile to their face."

Dillon is especially passionate about the Foundation's Stick To Fitness powered by Kaiser Permanente street hockey program that promotes healthy living for fifth and sixth graders to eat well, limit screen time to two hours a day, exercise for at least an hour and try to eliminate sugary drinks from the diet.

Dillon shares with the students his career and health habits while teaching exercises that students use during their five-week street hockey physical education curriculum. Dillon was also the face of a similar program in Dallas that started in 2013.

"When I was younger, I think we all got home from school and went outside to shoot hoops or skate," Dillon said. "Today kids are so invested in social media, technology, their devices and playing Fortnite.

"I'm going to sound old here, but I think it's important to get outside and get exercise just for better health and to clear the mind for these youngsters."

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