2018-19 Season Review: Brenden Dillon’s two seasons
He followed his best regular season performance with a dud in the postseason.
Dillon’s season was a “Jekyll and Hyde” affair. As a member of the team’s third pair, he impressed alongside Erik Karlsson. When injuries to Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic thrust Dillon into second-pair minutes, he continued his impressive season both offensively and defensively. Dillon’s impact on the team’s even-strength performance rivaled that of some of the league’s top blueliners (more on that later). Whether he skated with Karlsson or the much less capable Justin Braun, Dillon helped the team outshot opponents, even while typically starting more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone.
When the calendar flipped to April, however, Dillon’s performance was anything but helpful.
Dillon’s 5-on-5 shot share relative to his teammates was in the bottom 40 percent of all postseason defenders. That poor position may reflect more the team’s play than his own, however. Dillon’s shot share mark was just the third-worst among his San Jose defenders. His expected goal share relative to his teammates was a bottom-15 showing. That figure was second-worst on his own team, however, suggesting Dillon’s relative metrics weren’t solely a result of poor team performance.
While many of the metrics used to evaluate players adjust for those players’ context, it’s difficult to imagine a world where the presence of Erik Karlsson doesn’t impact Dillon’s ability to impact the game. Karlsson navigated oncoming dangerous forechecks and regularly made himself available to his defense partner for breakout passes. It is a testament to Dillon’s remarkable season that he maintained his impressive isolated impact long after Karlsson was injured and Dillon returned to Justin Braun’s side. It’s a bit head-scratching that Dillon did not perform nearly as well during the postseason back alongside Karlsson. Perhaps his partner’s injury impacted both skaters.
Dillon’s ability to exit the zone cleanly and his possession defense improved drastically this season, even though his contribution to the Sharks’ team shots remained fairly static. Erik Karlsson is known for many things, but one of this clearly visible strengths is his neutral zone play. He is adept at weaving through traffic and constantly slides across the zone to close down on opponents while they attempt to transition. Skating alongside a roving Karlsson may have helped Dillon improve his own numbers in those categories.
Despite how far hockey analytics have come, there is still plenty of gray area when it comes to isolating individual player impact. Dillon had — by his standards — a career year. It’s difficult to not wonder, even amid metrics that pry a player a apart from his teammates, what sort of help he got in the form of a smooth-skating all-world teammate.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
Though last season was Dillon’s best scoring season, and he saw the most ice time during his final two years in Dallas, this year was one for the blueliner’s personal record books. Whatever the metrics show about a player, we can see how a coach feels about him by looking at his ice time. Halfway through the season, after Karlsson injured himself (again) and it became clear Vlasic’s poor season would continue into the spring, the Sharks coaching staff gave Dillon more responsibility.
The defender showed he was up for the task, soaking in the ice time increase without floundering in tougher deployment.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
During this year’s player reviews, we’ll use these regularized, adjusted plus/minus (RAPM) charts to highlight each player’s individual impact on the game. The twins behind the EvolvingWild twitter handle looked to basketball analytics and existing frameworks for isolating a given metric from others.
Their work has given them a model that separates a player’s impact on goals, expected goals and shots from the impact of his teammates, opponents, zone starts, the score of the game and the venue. The vertical axis shows how many deviations away from the positional mean a player’s performance was. The darker the purple (or red) the greater the impact. This year, Dillon had a strong positive impact on all three facets of the game. Most impressively, he did a wonderful job helping the Sharks limit shots against (“Def_CF” refers to defensive corsi for, or the volume of shots a team allowed).
Dillon also helped the team generate offensive expected goals, a bit unexpected for a player mostly known for his physicality and defense.
By the way, on the Couture goal, Dillon had excellent shift. Evaded forecheck on #SJSharks breakout, then kept Pacioretty to outside, before Karlsson got it up to Meier pic.twitter.com/rZNIpGsh4N— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) April 19, 2019
It’s difficult to find highlights for a player who doesn’t register a ton of points and whose key work is mostly in the defensive zone. While colleague Sheng Peng points out Dillon’s strong play in his tweet, we can examine it in a bit more detail. Dillon not only begins the breakout, but he gets the puck to Karlsson and continues to join the rush. By keeping himself in the play, the Knights have to account for him.
Later, after the Sharks lose the puck, Dillon does a good job of keeping Max Pacioretty outside of the faceoff dot. While Dillon isn’t able to catch up to the faster forward, he maintains solid positioning and forces a shot from a wide angle. It’s these kinds of plays that show how Dillon worked hard on his own to positively impact the game. Unfortunately, these types of game clips are rarely seen after the play happens in real time.
What comes next?
Per CapFriendly, Dillon has one year remaining on his contract, set at a $3.27 million average annual value (AAV). Similarly aged players on comparable deals who will be unrestricted free agents next season include Mattias Ekholm, Michael Stone, Radko Gudas, Justin Braun and Jack Johnson. The cohort of players in which Dillon finds himself speaks less to the quality of his contract and more to the ways in which organizations seem to misvalue defenders, at least in relation to their publicly available statistics. Dillon’s cap hit will be ranked 94 among next year’s free agent class, so he’s likely getting paid what he deserves.
In all likelihood, Dillon rides out the end of his contract in San Jose. Depending on this offseason, he may be someone the team can bring back on a cheaper deal in the near future. For now, Dillon is about where he should be and probably isn’t someone too interesting to potential trade partners. If he can maintain any sort of semblance of this year’s regular-season performance moving forward, Dillon should remain an underpriced player whose contract the Sharks can leverage to optimize their cap situation.