Whether it is because he is a very likable person or because he threw down with Evgeni Malkin in just his third game with the Capitals, defenseman Brenden Dillon quickly endeared himself to fans after he was acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline. Many fans have been vocal in their desire to see Dillon re-signed and, you know what? They're right.
After a first-round exit for a team that general manager Brian MacLellan believes is still in the midst of its championship window, his offseason to-do list seems quite lengthy. Re-signing Dillon, however, needs to be near the top of that list as one of the team's top priorities.
The biggest hole on the Caps' blue line all season was a top-four right defenseman so it seemed odd when the team spent a second and a conditional third-round draft pick to acquire yet another lefty. With the continued struggles of Michal Kempny, however, the trade soon appeared to be a prescient one.
Kempny worked his way into a top-pair role alongside John Carlson in the team's 2018 Stanley Cup run, but he just did not look the same after tearing his hamstring in 2019. He struggled tremendously for much of the 2019-20 regular season both physically and mentally. Dillon was there to step in and played well alongside Carlson, despite being new to the team.
A hamstring injury can take a while to recover from and. Kempny's 2019-20 season can be explained away as Kempny still not being 100-percent. The issue is what happened when play resumed.
After nearly five months, essentially a full offseason, Kempny continued to struggle in the postseason. When play resumed, it had been over a year since Kempny's surgery and yet, if you look at each of the Caps' defensive pairs that played together for more than five minutes in the postseason, four of the team's bottom-five pairs in terms of Corsi-for percentage include Kempny. He struggled so badly, that he was a healthy scratch for the final three games against the New York Islanders.
A team with Stanley Cup aspirations cannot go into a season not knowing what its top pair is going to look like and I don't see how after the 2020 postseason Washington can enter next season confident that Kempny can be a top-pair player. The team needs a contingency plan and Dillon is the best option.
Both MacLellan and Dillon have remained non-committal when talking about re-signing. As an unrestricted free agent, Dillon would have to be open to signing with Washington and it certainly sounds like there could be some interest.
"I’m happy with being a Washington Capital," Dillon said at the start of the postseason training camp. "I think from Day 1 when I came here from the trade they made me feel right at home. ... Super, super happy to be here and be a Cap.”
For now, however, talks seem to be on hold.
"We’ll talk to his representatives as we got into free agency as we explore our opportunities, as will he, and then we’ll make a decision based on that," MacLellan said.
That does not sound as urgent as I think it should.
If Kempny continues to struggle and Dillon walks in free agency, who does the team turn to? The most likely candidate would be Dmitry Orlov and, to be fair, the Orlov-Carlson pair had the team's best Corsi-For percentage in the regular season at 57.89-percent, better than Dillon-Carlson's 51.34. The problem is that a whopping 71.19-percent of Orlov-Carlson's shifts started in the offensive zone. That's massive and it shows a clear desire by the coaches to use that pair only in offensive situations.
If the coaches cannot depend on a defensive pair in the defensive zone, guess what? That's not your top defensive pair.
Even with the coaches setting Orlov-Carlson up for offensive success, its percentage of high-danger chances for was 48.96-percent.
Think about that. The Orlov-Carlson pairing started seven out of every 10 shifts in the offensive zone and still, still managed to give up more high-danger chances than it created and more goals (12 to 13).
Though it was for only 10 games, Dillon-Carlson had a high-danger chances-for percentage of 57.41-percent despite only starting 40.91-percent of its shifts in the offensive zone.
It is a very real possibility that the team will need someone other than Kempny to play on the top pair with Carlson in 2020-21. Who can the team turn to if not Dillon? Salary cap space may be tight, but Washington cannot afford to let a top-pair defensive player walk as a free agent with no clear replacement on the roster.