Rasmus Dahlin: The Good, The Bad, The Buffalo

Tony Ferrari

2021-04-07

Image courtesy of Andrew Armstrong

 

The NHL is ushering in a youth movement on the blueline with names like Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Miro Heiskanen, Adam Fox. Once thought to be the headliner of the group, Rasmus Dahlin has been mentioned less and less with them recently. Dahlin was touted as the next great defender in the game. Norris Trophy wins were basically expected. Unfortunately for both Dahlin and hockey fans everywhere, that hasn’t been the case quite yet. The young Swede has time, still just 20 years old, and his raw talent is still bursting at the seams. The problem is that this season has been about as successful as General William Hull’s attempted invasion of Canada during the War of 1812.

 

 

To figure out what happened, I went back and watched eight games from his draft year, rookie year, and this year. I dove into other tape as well such as reviewing all of his points in those three years. The base takeaways were that he was a deserved first-overall pick while playing with Frölunda in 2017-18. He had some issues defensively that were not being talked about and could have led to some worries but they weren’t anything that would have caused any wavering in regards to him being atop the draft board. His rookie season in 2018-19 with Buffalo was encouraging and he showed a ton of promise. The skills that he displayed at the SHL level translated well. Although watching the Sabres was tough, there was a lot of hope emanating from the talent of their recent top picks in Jack Eichel and Dahlin himself. 

 

The pain really started when watching Dahlin and the Sabres from this season. Mental, emotional, and even physical pain have all been inflicted on the Buffalo Sabres organization and fanbase. COVID hit them multiple times this season, taking both former head coach Ralph Krueger and interim head coach Don Granato off the bench this season. Players such as Rasmus Ristolainen among others have caught COVID-19. Ristolainen was hit particularly hard by COVID-19 and as we’ve seen with other people, athletes and non-athletes, the effects of a novel coronavirus can last well after the person is ‘healthy’. As alluded to, they have also had an in-season coaching change whilst in the middle of a losing streak of epic proportions spanning 18 games before ending it a week ago – Wednesday, March 31st – and they’ve done well to win three of four since, with Dahlin showcasing what makes him special.

 

Those issues are just the icing on the cake, except the cake is a turd hidden in icing and Buffalo just can’t seem to stop eating. If the first question to be answered for the Sabres as the season winds down is ‘What happens with Jack Eichel?’, the second question has to be “What is Rasmus Dahlin and have we ruined him already?”. Neither question is going to be fun to answer and the Eichel one is likely not going to be in their control as the frustrated captain has been the topic of many trade discussions. The Dahlin question is going to be an interesting one and it requires some retrospective analysis of Dahlin through the years and a look at what needs to change, so let’s get into it.

 

Rasmus Dahlin the Draft Prospect

Not every draft is made equal. Following the 2017 draft which featured Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick atop most boards, 2018 was supposed to return to the level of the previous two drafts. Connor McDavid (2015), Jack Eichel (2015), and Auston Matthews (2016) were all looked at as franchise-altering players and Rasmus Dahlin was viewed as the defender in that tier that everyone had been waiting on. At 6’2″ and 181lbs, he had the frame teams desired. His dynamic skating and offensive prowess led to near record-breaking production with 20 points in 41 games at the Liiga level. 

 

Let’s look at what made him such a special prospect while playing with Frölunda in the SHL. Dahlin showcased exceptional ability as a skater and the unique blend of mobility and puck skills had scouts and general managers drooling. Meshing speed and agility along with elusiveness and deception, the young Swede was able to carve SHL teams as both a 17 and 18-year-old. He evaded pressure against men with ease, slipping forecheckers and defensive coverages through the neutral zone. Transitioning the puck up ice as an 18-year-old against men at a high level, Dahlin’s mobility was at a level that is seldom seen from blueliners. When the puck was on his stick, he became a magnet for opposing players, drawing them into his space by holding onto the puck a few extra seconds before snapping a pass to a teammate with extra space. 

 

 

As an offensive player, Dahlin seemed to be thinking a step ahead of the players who were thinking a step ahead. The 2018 top prospect was able to open passing and shooting lanes with his lateral mobility and exploiting the lanes that he creates. He possessed a wicked wrist shot and wasn’t satisfied taking shots from the right point. He penetrated the offensive zone routinely, getting into the faceoff circles and the slot to take many of his shots. He was able to get 31.3% of his shots from the high danger area (home plate) and when looking exclusively at the shots he did take from the blueline, 52% of them came from between the faceoff circles, the most dangerous spot on the ice if you are shooting from distance. His tendency for getting to that high slot position was a factor of him staying fluid and mobile along the blueline. All of this factors into his ability to open lanes all over the ice but specifically in the offensive zone.

 

On the powerplay, Dahlin was a freak. The combination of his skating and puck skill made him a lethal threat from the blueline who could make a break inside at any time. With the added space due to the man advantage, Dahlin’s ability to manufacture space with his feet was admirable. Dahlin saw through layers, finding teammates that could have only dreamed of receiving a pass had it been anyone else. Whether it was a north-south or east-west, Dahlin could do it all.

 

 

His defensive play wasn’t perfect but he was able to utilize his skating and anticipation at a very high level. There were times, especially in sustained zone pressure, where he would lose his positioning trying to jump on a loose puck or cut off an opponent’s skating path. He showed a quickness about him when defending odd-man rushes, staying patient in the passing lane and before seemingly instantaneously striking the puck and quelling the offensive chance. He showed a fundamental physicality that projects well. He was able to pin attackers after angling off and he did a decent job of clearing the net-front considering his age. Defensive play was certainly the area that he needed to work on most but he progressed throughout the season and drove Corsi results to the tune of 60.34%, second among all defensemen in the SHL with at least 10 games played, regardless of age. A willingness to engage physically was a welcome sight at times as he fought through strength disadvantages with good body positioning and the confidence to put his hands in an attackers chest if needed.

 

 

The hype around Dahlin during his draft season was well deserved. Dahlin is an exceptional skating defender who has on-ice awareness and the ability to drive shot differentials overwhelmingly positively. He finished one point behind Victor Hedman’s record for draft-eligible scoring but played in two fewer games giving them both a .488 points-per-game. No matter the metric you use or the video you digest, Dahlin was every bit of a first overall pick who should change a franchises fortunes at the NHL level.

 

Dahlin’s Draft-Eligible Strengths: Skating and mobility, anticipation and play reading ability, elusiveness, offensive dual-threat, dynamic puck skills, transition game, rush defense, confidence, play driving ability

Dahlin’s Draft-Eligible Areas to Improve: Physical strength, net-front clearing, stagnant defensive play

 

Rasmus Dahlin the NHL Rookie

Coming into his rookie season, Dahlin was joining a Buffalo Sabres team that finished the prior season with 62 points and a 25-45-12 record to finish in the basement. With Jack Eichel entering his fourth season, first as captain, and the addition of Dahlin, Sabres fans were starting to see the light at the end of their never-ending rebuild tunnel. As a team, they improved by 14 points in the standings and picked up eight more wins overall. Things looked like they were at least on the right track, making a jump up the standings and looking like they finally had the building blocks to begin the build portion of the rebuild.

 

 

Dahlin began his rookie year playing 22:37 in his very first game as an NHLer and he didn’t look back. Dahlin came as advertised in just about every aspect of the game. He was a minute-eating play driver from the back end, averaging 21:06 a night and generating a 51.2% shot share. On a team that still finished in the bottom five of the NHL, Dahlin’s overwhelmingly positive results from a play driving and analytical perspective were encouraging. The Sabres blueline looked like it had its stalwart for years to come.

 

From a counting statistics standpoint, the young Swede was an absolute monster. Dahlin finished with the second-most points (44) and third-highest points-per-game (0.537) for an 18-year-old defender in NHL history. Only Phil Housley had more points and Housley and Bobby Orr had a higher points-per-game.

 

 

All the statistical success aside, seeing Dahlin playing his game and translating all of the mobility, skill, awareness and intelligence translate so quickly was a sight to behold. He was able to display the elusive footwork that earned him such high praise in the SHL and allowed him to push the pace of play. His ability to manipulate opponents with the puck on his stick, spawning room where there once wasn’t, was a noticeable trait that allowed for him to have such a good rookie year.

 

He was a fairly strong defensive player as well. He certainly had his hiccups as an NHL rookie but there were as many good moments as there were learning moments. He showcased the same patience and play reading ability. He had the wherewithal to attack the play when presented with the option and the confidence to follow through and turn play around efficiently. He certainly wasn’t a defensive wiz by any means but the traits of an excellent transitional defender and quality in-zone rearguard were all evident. Dahlin seemed to adjust to the pace of play at the NHL level fairly quickly and found himself as a Calder finalist, finishing third behind Vancouver center Elias Pettersson and St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington.

 

 

It’s safe to say that Dahlin’s rookie year in the NHL was a success. The translation of skills was evident in his rookie year and outside of a few things that you expect rookies to have issues with (strength, adjusting to pace initially), he seemed to be very much playing the same game with a bit more of an emphasis on using his partner than you’d see in the SHL. Nothing major to worry about especially considering he was able to showcase his skill leading to production.

 

Dahlin’s Rookie Year Strengths: Skating and mobility, anticipation and play reading ability, elusiveness, offensive dual-threat, dynamic puck skills, transition game, confidence, play driving ability

Dahlin’s Rookie Year Areas to Improve: Physical strength, net-front clearing, stagnant defensive play

 

Rasmus Dahlin Today

Entering his third NHL season, Dahlin was looking poised to breakout and looking to announce himself as one of the truly elite young defenders in the game. The Buffalo Sabres looked like they were trying to improve the roster around Dahlin and Eichel with the additions of 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and six-time 30-goal scorer Eric Staal who also has a Stanley Cup on his resume. With regression to the mean expected after an absolutely terrible season for Jeff Skinner, the Sabres must have felt fairly happy with the fact that they had some talent upfront to surround Eichel. On the back end, the Sabres added players like Brandon Montour, Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju since 2019. The Sabres seemed to have a framework for what looked to be their first competitive roster since 2011-12 when they finished three points out of a playoff spot. They may not have been expected to make the playoffs, but they expected to be on the cusp and playing meaningful games past the trade deadline.

 

 

Then… the season happened.

 

As previously mentioned, the team has had anything that could go wrong, go worse than ever imagined. From injuries to bad bounces, this year has been filled with trouble. They’ve had multiple COVID-19 situations including former coach Ralph Krueger and interim head coach Don Granato both spending time on the COVID-list, with Krueger having a tough go with the virus. Players have been on and off the COVID list as well, including Dahlin himself who revealed that he was a close contact, not a positive test.

 

The most concerning part of the season for Dahlin was that his play of the ice has cratered a bit. To figure out why, there must be a multi-level analysis done on the Sabres and Dahlin himself. Thankfully, David St-Louis from Elite Prospects Rinkside did part of that work for us in his