Credit: Courtesy Washington Capitals

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On an Uber ride to dinner shortly after arriving in D.C. from San Jose, California, Brenden Dillon listened as his driver talked about the DMV. Confused, Dillon didn’t say anything, but thought to himself that it was strange that so many people in his new city lived near the Department of Motor Vehicles. Finally, he asked one of his new teammates about it.

“It means D.C., Maryland, Virginia,” Dillon recalls his Washington Capitals teammate responding. “I’m like, ‘OK, that makes way more sense.’”

Born and raised near Vancouver, Dillon—a self-proclaimed “West Coast guy”—may still be learning the geography of the D.C. area, but luckily for the team, things appear to be going a little more smoothly on the ice. A week before the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline, the Capitals acquired the 29-year-old Dillon from the San Jose Sharks, who are out of playoff contention, in exchange for a 2020 second round pick and a 2021 conditional third round pick.

Prior to the trade, the Caps had lost five of their seven games in February, and were outscored 26 to 18 during that span. They have also struggled to keep the goal crease clear and currently rank 20th out of 31 teams in high danger scoring chances against, a stat that measures an opponent’s scoring chances near the net. General manager Brian MacLellan turned to Dillon, a left-handed defenseman, as a solution. Dillon isn’t much of an offensive threat, having only scored one goal this season, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman is known for his physical play and led the Sharks in hits (178) and was fourth in blocked shots (67).

“I think one of the things that’s been frustrating for me is the play in front of our own net, the compete level in front of our own net, and this is something he brings to the table here,” McClellan told reporters during a Feb. 19 press conference. “I think he does a great job in front of our net. So I think we addressed that through him.”

Joining a team midseason is not easy. “It was kind of like trying to jam two, three weeks of work at the beginning of the season … into one or two days,” Dillon says. He signed a contract with the Dallas Stars in 2011 after going undrafted and had only played for Dallas and San Jose, two Western Conference teams, before joining the Caps. 

But it didn’t take him long to win over fans in his new city.

At the end of the first period in just his third game with the team, Dillon threw down his gloves and exchanged punches with Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, a longtime Caps rival. The Caps won the game, 5-3, and afterward his teammates honored him with the Nationals batting helmet given out to a key player at the discretion of the team after a win. A few days later, Dillon could be seen sporting a shiner in his left eye—although he says it wasn’t from the Malkin scuffle.

“I took a reverse hit from a guy and the guy’s helmet bumped into me later into the game,” Dillon explains.

Dillon also fought Minnesota Wild forward Ryan Hartman, his first with the team, after Hartman slashed Caps forward Ilya Kovalchuk during the Caps’ 4-3 win on March 1. In the locker room, Dillon—“Dilly” or “Dilly Dilly” as his teammates prefer—has fit in with his laid-back and positive attitude. He has already worked his way into the team’s elaborate pregame routine, sharing a complex handshake with Tom Wilson, sweeping his hair with Carl Hagelin, and tapping his stick with Alex Ovechkin, before the team heads out of the tunnel.

“He’s as advertised,” Caps coach Todd Reirden said after the team’s 4-3 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 25. “Not only do we like on the ice things that he does, but we like how he carries himself off the ice, in terms of in the locker room, upbeat, energetic, his attitude’s great, he’s in phenomenal shape. I think that’s something, a little bit of an element we were missing with some of the people we lost last year. It’s been nice … to have him join our team and [he] certainly provides a physical presence as well.”

With the addition of Dillon, the Caps, who sit atop the Metropolitan Division, currently have five of the top 25 league leaders in hits, defined as the number of body checks delivered by a player to the person on the opposing team with the puck. In six games with the Caps, Dillon is averaging about 20 minutes of ice time per game while being paired with John Carlson, the front runner for the James Norris Memorial Trophy given to the league’s best defenseman.

“I think our main goal is to get the puck out of the zone as quick as possible and then to the forwards’ hands and that’s always been a mantra of ours, and I think he fits in great,” Carlson says. “He’s a hard nosed player and plays with a lot of physicality and in people’s faces, and I think he moves the puck really well for doing everything.”

Dillon and Carlson are responsible for taking on the opposing team’s best offensive players, and Carlson’s stats have improved with Dillon compared to his pairing with Michal Kempný, who has struggled this season. After the trade for Dillon, Kempny moved to the third pair with Radko Gudas. “I feel really comfortable playing against the high-end players on other teams and take a lot of pride in being able to do my best to shut those guys down,” Dillon says.

In San Jose, the Sharks paired Dillon with Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson—two elite offensive players at the defensive position. Dillon understands he was brought in specifically to help the team’s inconsistent defense, a role that he embraces.

“There’s expectations, there’s a little bit of pressure [but] at the same time, you definitely feel excited and flattered that you’re a guy that they feel can come in and help,” Dillon says. “I think for me and Johnny, every game has gotten better and we all know how offensive and good of a player he is. So I’m just trying to compliment him as best I can.”

He calls the defensive players “a pretty close knit group,” but like with any move, there can be a learning curve. Dillon is still figuring things out about living on the East Coast. When he arrived at his Arlington hotel, Dillon decided to walk to dinner in shorts and sandals. He now knows better. Winter weather in the DMV isn’t quite like Southern California. His teammates have been there to help with the transition.

“They’ve been very welcoming to me,” Dillon says. “It’s been a lot of fun and definitely getting better every day.”