ARLINGTON — When Capitals coach Todd Reirden got on the phone with defenseman Brenden Dillon Tuesday shortly after finalizing a trade to bring him to Washington, Dillon brought up an interaction they had some 11 years ago.
Dillon went undrafted in 2009, but he had an opportunity with the Pittsburgh Penguins in a rookie tournament in Canada. Reirden, the coach of Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate at the time, coached the Penguins’ team in that tournament. He remembered liking Dillon “a lot,” but the Penguins couldn’t sign the blueliner prospect.
It all worked out in the end: Dillon later broke into the NHL with the Dallas Stars, built a career longer than most players drafted in 2009 and then landed with Reirden’s Capitals this week via a trade with the San Jose Sharks.
“He was the head coach there and he ran a tight ship, and he was very detailed and a lot of the same things that he does here, 11, 12 years later,” Dillon told reporters Thursday, his first day on the ice with his new team.
In San Jose, Dillon was paired with Brent Burns, who, like Carlson, is one of the league’s top offensive defensemen.
“I just think that that’s the right type of partner for him to start,” Reirden said, adding that they will move Dillon around as well. “He gets to learn next to John and he’s playing top-line minutes and we’ll be able to see him. He’s playing with a partner, a same type of player that he’s used to, in terms of with Burns. Probably the least amount of change from that standpoint.”
The Sharks traded Dillon because they’re likely to miss the playoffs and he is a pending unrestricted free agent for whom they could get a good package in return. The Capitals sent them a 2020 second-round draft pick and a conditional 2021 third-rounder.
Dillon’s week started off full of uncertainty. After a Sharks game on Monday, he was asked if he might have played his last game for the team, and he had to fight back tears as he answered.
After his first skate with the Capitals Thursday, Dillon said it was nice he didn’t have to wait up until Monday’s NHL trade deadline still waiting for news about his future.
“I think coming here, you’re obviously coming to a team that’s doing very well,” Dillon said. “Just starting to meet the guys this morning. It feels like a tight-knit family in here, and there’s a reason that they’ve had so much success not just this year but in years past.”
As Dillon spoke with reporters, center Nic Dowd entered the scrum and jokingly asked if he was ready to transition from warm-weather California to the East Coast.
“Well, I wore shorts for my walk last night to dinner and I might have to put on some pants today,” Dillon said. “I’ll make sure to wear a suit and maybe an overcoat.”
“Yeah,” Dowd replied. “We require suits here in D.C.”
After playing against the Capitals twice a season for several years, Dillon — himself a hard-hitting presence who stands 6-foot-4, taller in skates — said it was nice to count the likes of Tom Wilson and Radko Gudas as teammates now, as opposed to taking hits from them.
And of course, there’s the matter of playing for a team that’s less than two years removed from Stanley Cup glory, with the likes of Alex Ovechkin.
“I think when you come in you obviously know the Ovechkins and Backstroms and these guys, and once you get to see the rest of them, they’re a talented group,” Dillon said. “There’s a reason, again, why they’re as good as they are. They practice hard too. Just a morning skate, but a really high tempo and crispy and it’s awesome. I’m happy to be in there.”
With Dillon joining Carlson on the top line, Michal Kempny was relegated to the third pair with Gudas; Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen remained on the second pair and Jonas Siegenthaler drew out of the lineup.
Elsewhere, Evgeny Kuznetsov will return to the lineup Thursday after missing three games with an upper-body injury. Fourth-line winger Brendan Leipsic, playing his first season with Washington, will miss his first game this season as a healthy scratch in favor of Travis Boyd. Leipsic hasn’t scored a goal in 33 games, and Reirden said he was looking for the fourth line to create some more offense.
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