No time like the present. The San Jose Sharks’ asking price for defenseman Brenden Dillon was apparently clear, as reported by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun: a second- and third-round pick. Knowing it, the Washington Capitals and GM Brian MacLellan decided to dive in six days before the 2020 trade deadline rather than risk missing out on a key veteran upgrade.
On Tuesday afternoon, they acquired Dillon from the Sharks for a 2020 second-round pick, which originally belonged to the Colorado Avalanche, plus a conditional 2021 third-round pick. If Washington wins the Stanley Cup this season, the 2021 third-rounder changes to a 2020 third-rounder, which originally belonged to the Arizona Coyotes. The Sharks also retain 50 percent of Dillon’s $3.27-million AAV.
So what do the Capitals get in Dillon? He’s a simple, meat-and-potatoes defenseman. He’s never topped six goals or 22 points in an NHL season. You know what you’re getting with Dillon, and offense isn’t it. He brings real heaviness at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, and he’s one of the more physical blueliners in the league. Only four defensemen have registered more hits since 2012-13, his first full NHL season. Ranking sixth on the list, one spot below Dillon, is Brooks Orpik. That’s fitting, as Dillon, 29, will join the Caps to essentially be a younger version of what Orpik had been before he retired after last season.
So from an externally obvious point of view, we understand what Dillon brings. He’s big and strong, built for trench warfare, a good fit for a team that earns a lot of its success by physically bullying its opponents. He’s well-liked among players, a dressing-room glue guy. He also brings penalty-killing acumen and comes from a Sharks team that, despite its struggles, ices the No. 1 PK unit in the league this season at 85.9 percent.
But from the perspective of the modern defensive ideal, in which skating and positioning matter more than brute force, does Dillon make the grade considering the price Washington paid? It appears so, assuming he’s deployed the right way. He’s shown he can be the stay-at-home defensive conscience when paired with a high-end puck-mover. His most common partners at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons in San Jose have been Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, and Dillon hasn’t been a possession anchor dragging down either of them. Dillon is a tank of a man but doesn’t fit the mold of “big guy from another era who can’t keep up.” He can defend in the modern era. He brings little on the offensive side, but the opposing team doesn’t muster much when he’s on the ice. Since the start of 2017-18, 229 D-men have played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, and he ranks seventh-stingiest in team shot attempts against per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice; sixth in team shots against per 60; and 30th in scoring chances against per 60. It helps that he’s played with such elite partners, of course, but what that tells Washington is it can pair Dillon with a big-time puck-mover and know Dillon can keep things calm when the action goes toward Washington’s net.
It thus wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Dillon get a look with Norris Trophy frontrunner John Carlson, who, like Burns and Karlsson, is a dynamic offensive force who plays the right side. If the Caps prefer to keep Carlson with Michal Kempny, they could try Dillon on more of a conservative pair with Nick Jensen or Radko Gudas.
Given the Winnipeg Jets got the highly underrated Dylan DeMelo from Ottawa on Tuesday for a third-round pick, did Washington overpay for Dillon? Maybe, but it’s all about context. The Caps are all-in, chasing a second Stanley Cup in three years, and are fine overpaying if it means they get their guy. They’re slumping of late, losing six of 10 games since the all-star break, during which they’ve allowed the ninth-most shots per game in the league and let the Pittsburgh Penguins to pull within a point of them for the Metropolitan Division lead. So it was time to lock things down regardless of whether MacLellan had to spend a lot of draft-pick capital.
For the Sharks, the trade is pretty easy to break down. It’s been a nightmare season, plagued by devastating injuries to star players, and Dillon was a pending UFA, so it was all too easy a decision for GM Doug Wilson to cash that chip. Since the first-rounder they sent to Ottawa in last season’s Erik Karlsson trade wasn’t lottery protected, the Sharks don’t currently hold a first-round pick in 2020, so Wilson had to recoup some picks. He now owns two second-round selections in June.
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