Brenden Dillon “went in to clobber a guy” during one of his first shifts at the IIHF World Championship and came up empty.
“He turned the other way,” the Canadian defenceman said. “I was like ‘how come you had so much time?“’
If there’s a “welcome to the NHL moment” for NHL rookies, that was Dillon’s “welcome to international hockey” experience.
The New Westminster, B.C., native, who plays for Dallas in the NHL, is one of three 22-year-old defenceman making his international debut for Canada at this year’s world championship. Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers and T.J. Brodie of the Calgary Flames are the others.
Head coach Lindy Ruff says young NHL defencemen have it tough adjusting to the wider international ice surface. One stride out of position can mean embarrassment.
“If you get caught a little outside on the bigger ice, which we’re not used to . . . when you’re back home you can make that recovery,” he said.
“Here, you find you’ve got an extra ways to go. Playing against players who are used to playing on the big ice for the most part, it’s a little bit of a disadvantage for them.”
Luke Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers and Dillon’s Stars teammate Stephane Robidas have the most international experience of the seven defenceman.
Along with Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers, who has represented Canada in a world junior championship, they’re logging the big minutes on defence. Jay Harrison of the Carolina Hurricanes has also played for Canada’s junior team.
Ruff doesn’t have the luxury of easing his novice defencemen into the international game. He’s thrown them into the fire in Canada’s two wins and a shootout loss to open the tournament.
Dillon averaged just over 17 minutes, Schultz about 14 and Brodie just under 13 per game. Schultz and Brodie each have an assist for their first international points.
“If you break down the three games, they’ve all had real good moments,” Ruff said. “I think they’ve had some nerves in some of the games, but I think overall they’ve performed well.”
Canada (2-0-1) faces Sweden on Thursday and Belarus (1-2) on Friday in the Stockholm group.
Switzerland (3-0-1) continued its unbeaten run Wednesday with a 7-1 win over Slovenia (0-3-1). The Swedes were to take on Norway later Wednesday.
Germany blanked Austria 2-0, while the United States was to face Finland later in the Helsinki pool.
Ruff continues to rotate his goaltenders in the preliminary round, and will send Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes back into Canada’s net against Sweden.
Smith, from Kingston, Ont., made 26 saves in regulation and stopped six of eight in a shootout in Canada’s 3-2 loss to the Swiss on Sunday.
“I got the nerves out of my system in the first one and felt pretty comfortable after the first period,” Smith said. “Hopefully I can continue that in the next game here.”
The hosts are expected to start Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres in net. Enroth was coached by Ruff until Buffalo fired him in February.
“Two years ago, he was the reason we got in the playoffs when Ryan Miller got hurt,” Ruff recalled.
Dillon and Robidas will face their Stars teammate and Swedish forward Loui Eriksson on Thursday.
“He’s got sneaky speed,” Robidas said. “He can get behind the defence and he has a quick release, quick on rebounds and stuff like that. We’ve got to be aware and make sure we know where he is on the ice at all times.”
The Vancouver Canucks were eliminated from the first round of NHL playoffs early Wednesday morning Stockholm time. Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis won gold in 2007 and silver in both 2008 and 2009 with Canada at world championships.
Canada has room for three more players on the roster, but Ruff was noncommittal on extending invitations.
“We haven’t made any decisions yet,” the coach said. “I’m sure there’s players we’re going to talk about, but we haven’t yet.”
Dillon says he was having dinner at Robidas’s house in Dallas when he received a phone call from Steve Yzerman. The Tampa Bay Lightning GM is also executive director of Canada’s national team.
Yzerman invited Dillon to play in the world championship. Robidas was issued an invitation the following day.
“He said ‘I didn’t want you to go on your own, so I’ll come too,“’ Dillon said.
You’d never guess from Dillon’s six-foot-three, 228-pound frame that he was five foot two at 15. Dillon was five foot 11 and just over 160 pounds in his second year with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds.
“I was trying to eat everything and anything,” he recalled.
While Dillon’s learning to choose his spots in dishing out big checks, he’s discovered he can showcase other aspects of his game.
“You’re able to skate and that’s maybe one of my better attributes,” he said. “You’re able to join plays and make plays more so it’s been good.”
Schultz, from Kelowna, B.C., is offensively skilled with eight goals and 19 assists in 48 games for the Oilers in his rookie season. He played for the Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout and was named the AHL’s top defenceman with 18 goals and 30 assists in 34 games.
He has experience on the wide ice as a former member of the NCAA’s Wisconsin Badgers, but says it’s still been an adjustment after playing in the AHL and NHL this season. Positioning is key.
“Not getting caught in areas where their forwards can beat you to the middle,” Schultz explained. “There’s a lot of room out there and they can find areas where they can expose you. It’s being cautious about where you are on the ice.”
The tournament has been a learning curve for Brodie, from Dresden, Ont. On his first penalty kill of the tournament, Denmark captain Morten Green split the defence and went up the middle to score.
“I wasn’t really ready for that, just the time he had,” Brodie said. “I haven’t felt the best about my game, but I’m just trying to get better each day and get used to it more each day.”