The biggest compliment any NHL scouting staff can get is being accused of “stealing” a guy in the late rounds of the NHL draft.
Those staffs, the ones who know how to find NHL contributors late in the draft – or even signing one as an undrafted free agent – are the ones that can have a huge impact in helping add the kind of depth to a team that only elite clubs have.
One day, the NHL community could potentially look at Brenden Dillon and cite the Stars’ scouting staff for mining a true diamond in the rough.
Dillon, a 21year-old defenseman who played 55 games with the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars in 2011-12, certainly had the beginnings of a franchise development story. He arrived with the Stars organization as an undrafted free agent in 2011, signing with the team after playing junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds.
He had somehow filtered through two NHL drafts without being selected. But the Stars kept their eyes on him, and after impressive 2010-11 season with the Thunderbirds, they decided to take a chance on the big, physical blue-liner.
“The guys in the field identified him as someone to look at, and he was just a big, raw kid,” said Les Jackson, Stars Director of Player Personnel. “Over the next year, he looked like a guy whose game was separating from a lot of the other guys in the league. You are always looking for guys who are developing late, and he seemed to be a guy who had all the tools.”
The “tools” for Dillon begin with his size. He stands 6-feet-3, weighing in at 211 pounds. But more than being just a big, physical defenseman, Dillon showed Jackson and the Stars scouting staff some other elements that don’t always come with players of his stature – especially at his age.
“His size was eye-catching obviously,” Jackson said. “But his skating and his puck skills, and the fact that he ran the power play at that (WHL) level, those were things that impressed us as well. He’s got an element of physicality about him, he’s really a determined kid who seemed to play hard, and he played smart.”
The 2010-11 season in Seattle that earned him a look from the Stars was an impressive one: he competed in 72 games, scoring eight goals and dishing out 51 assists for 59 points. He was also whistled for 139 penalty minutes, hinting at the physical nature he possesses.
So when his junior season ended, he signed with the Stars and played the final 10 games of the regular season with AHL Texas. He also played in six playoff games in Austin, posting two assists and seven penalty minutes
He then had his first full AHL season with Texas in 2011-12, skating in 59 games. He scored his first three goals as a professional, assisted on 16 more and registered 59 penalty minutes.
Not a bad start in his first go at it against players who are getting paid.
“I think, all in all, he was very solid throughout his first year,” said Texas Stars general manager Scott White. “I think he got some valuable experience in the spring before coming to us, and we prepared him through the summer for coming into our camp. Then he worked his way into our top four and got a lot of valuable time, especially the penalty kill and power play time.”
Though there were admittedly some peaks and valleys to his first season in Texas, White said it was a growing experience for Dillon as a whole.
“He had a little dip in January,” White said. “But he has a solid overall game, and he brought things back around to the point where he was rewarded at the end of the year.”
That “reward” was a call-up to Dallas for the Stars’ final regular season game. And though it was meaningless in terms of the standings, one can never tell a player that his NHL debut was meaningless.
Dillon certainly didn’t play like it was. He logged right at 20 minutes of ice time (19:59), getting more than two minutes both on the power play and on the penalty kill against the Western Conference’s top-seeded St. Louis Blues. He led the Stars with six shots on goal, handed out four hits and blocked three shots.
His performance impressed everyone, including Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan, who had previously coached Dillon at the end of 2010-11 with Texas.
“I thought his game was strong,” Gulutzan said after the game. “I can see he’s made strides from when I had him a year ago. I think he’s going to be right around it come September.”
“Right around it” means challenging for a spot with the NHL club. And if he gets there after just more than a full season at the AHL level, people will be shocked to find out he slipped through the draft twice.
But the Stars front office, with what they’ve seen since his last season in Seattle, won’t be among the shocked. After all, that’s why they signed him.
“There’s still room for growth, there’s no doubt about it,” White said. “But that’s part of the progression. And where he is right now in his career, I believe there are big things in store for Brenden Dillon.”