During the 2006-07 season, as a 16-year-old playing for a team called the Hope Icebreakers in the Pacific International Junior Hockey League (PIJHL), a lower-level junior league in British Columbia, Dillon was a small defenseman who scored four goals and 27 assists and didn’t garner much attention from scouts.
That just further illustrates how inexact a science scouting teenagers can be, because now, heading into his first full professional season at 21, Dillon is a highly-touted prospect for the Dallas Stars.
“He has some talent, he’s a real mature kid,” said Dallas Director of Scouting and Player Development Les Jackson. “He’s an interesting story. It will be interesting to see where he goes. He went through the draft two or three times and played the whole season as a free agent. He’s got talent, for sure. You hate to say too many great things, but he looks like a positive.”
The now-6-foot-3, 209-pound Dillon has certainly progressed a long way over the past year, that’s for sure.
After passing unselected through a couple of NHL Drafts, Dillon suited up for WHL Seattle in his final year of junior eligibility, and as the season progressed, he played so well on a poor team that he received several offers from NHL squads to sign as a free agent.
In the midst of a year in which he totaled eight goals and finished second on his team with 59 points in 72 WHL games, Dillon decided to sign an entry-level deal with Dallas on March 1.
“As the season went on, I had a successful year and me and my agent and my family, we had talked to a couple of teams and Dallas was obviously in the mix,” said Dillon, who finished second on Seattle with 139 penalty minutes. “I got to look at some depth charts and meet everybody and right from the start, when I met with Les and with Shane Churla, one of their scouts, I had a really good feeling about this.”
“He’s big, I like the size, the range,” noted Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk regarding Dillon. “He’s got a good long stick. He’s got a good swivel head on defensive zone coverage. He reads the game really well and he can skate really well for a big man, too. He’s not afraid to join the rush and with those legs he can get back and not get himself in any trouble.”
After his season in Seattle concluded, Dillon had an opportunity to join the AHL Texas Stars, Dallas’ top minor league affiliate based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, and made a good impression.
“It was obviously a big year for myself, started off in Seattle and ended up at the end of the year in Austin, so it was definitely fun,” said Dillon of his 2010-11 season, which finished on a high note, as he contributed two assists and a +1 plus/minus rating in six AHL playoff games. “It was definitely a roller-coaster ride, you get to see the ups and downs. It was definitely lots of different things to see, being at the pro level, guys who got a family and obviously at the junior level, the guys are 16-21 years old. It’s something special and it was an invaluable experience, for sure.”
Even though Dillon didn’t record a point in 10 regular season games at the AHL level, he did very well in the playoff pressure cooker and believes it helped just getting a taste of the pro lifestyle and being able to observe some of the club’s veterans.
“In the AHL, that’s their jobs and the guys treat it very seriously,” said Dillon, who also fired six shots on goal during the playoffs. “I just got to learn some good habits and see how the guys approach it, guys like Brad Lukowich, a guy who’s won Stanley Cups, have been there, and I get to see how a guy like him practices every day and be in the same locker room. Those experiences are just invaluable, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I think also, there’s obviously an adjustment period from any level - from the Western League to the American League, it was a bit of an adjustment and I can only imagine what the next adjustment’s going to be like. I just tried to take it day-by-day, simplify my game and as I got comfortable, kind of add those tools that I can bring to my game.”
With his rapid progression from after-thought to prized prospect come heightened expectations. Even though he has just 16 total pro games under his belt, Dillon is now being counted upon to be one of the key defensemen on the AHL Stars’ roster in 2011-12.
“I think there’s two guys in particular right now who should have some impact,” said Scott White, who serves as Texas Stars GM and Dallas’ Director of Minor League Operations. “One of them is (2009 eighth overall pick) Scott Glennie
. He came in and joined us at the end of last year, which was a real valuable experience for Scott and then the other one who did the same thing was Brenden Dillon
, a free agent that we signed. Those two guys should garner a lot of ice time and excel in terms of their development, I believe, because they both had that experience. I see those two young guys as guys that should move their games along from a development standpoint.”
While Dillon’s development process would probably be best-served by spending the entire year in the AHL, getting more ice time and learning the pro game, the man himself has set his sights a little higher as he approaches his first Dallas training camp in September.
“My goal is, like every prospect, you want to play for the Dallas Stars and do it as soon as possible,” said Dillon, who looked impressive at the Stars’ annual development camp that took place at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in McKinney in early July. “That’s my goal and the only thing I can do is just make that decision as hard as I can for the coaching staff and for everybody up there (in management) and just have a day-by-day mentality and do my best out there.”
“He’s got a good feel for the game, he recognizes plays and executes them. I think he’s just got to get some experience,” Jackson pointed out. “We’ll work with him this summer, bring him back to camp and see where he fits in. I sense there’s a good future for that kid.”
As for the major growth spurt he had after turning 16, Dillon knows he wouldn’t have advanced this far without it, but the fact he was bypassed and under-estimated several times has provided him with additional motivation to prove his critics wrong.
“Not too many people know, but at 16 in the WHL bantam draft, I was only 5-foot-2, and now just four years later, I’m up to 6-foot-3, I think,” said Dillon, a native of Surrey, BC. “I didn’t get picked in the bantam draft and I didn’t get picked in the NHL Draft, so not getting picked wasn’t new to me and I just took it as one of those things, a chip on my shoulder and just really brought that approach to things, that I want to prove people wrong. I really want to prove that I can make something of myself and show people that I can bring something to the table.
“I think this year I got lots of opportunity in Seattle and I was fortunate enough to have a coach who really trusted in me and gave me an opportunity and I just kind of made the most of that. And then obviously at the next level, I got a chance in Austin and just really did my best on the ice.”
That’s all anyone can ask of him. And if he continues to do that, he will find himself in Dallas sooner or later.