Rasmus Dahlin is the front-runner to be selected 1st overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. Dahlin plays in Sweden and has been benefiting from an approach to developing young hockey players pioneered by the Frölunda Hockey Club.
Selecting a defenseman 1st overall in the modern NHL is extremely rare. While in the 1990s it was more common, since 2007, it has only happened once. How should we assess the potential success of a selecting a defenseman 1st overall?
A Brief Draft History of Defensmen
In the last ten years, 35 defensemen have been selected as one of the top ten picks in the annual entry draft. Since 1990, only five defensemen have been chosen first overall. These include Roman Hamrlik, Ed Jovanovski, Bryan Berard, Chris Phillips, Erik Johnson, and Aaron Ekblad.
In 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning chose Roman Hamrlik first overall. He was a solid player throughout his career, scoring more than 600 points. He was a three-time all-star and put up decent offensive numbers. He has played with five NHL teams and never won a Stanley Cup or any individual awards.
In 1994, the Florida Panthers chose Ed Jovanovski at number one. He was a runner-up for the Calder trophy and a five-time all-star. An all-around good player, he scored 500 points in his career. He never won a Cup.
In 1995 the Ottawa Senators choose Bryan Berard. He won the Calder trophy in 1997 and had the makings of becoming a real franchise defenseman. A terrible eye injury in 2000 derailed his career.
In 1996, the Senators selected Chris Phillips first overall. He played 15 years in Ottawa. While he was not considered to be a franchise player, he was a fixture on the blue line in Ottawa.
In 2006, the St. Louis chose Erik Johnson first overall. He has 259 points in 628 games. While he is still playing a role in Colorado, he is not what everyone thought he would be.
In 2014, the Florida Panthers selected Aaron Ekblad 1st overall from the Barrie Colts. Over 280 NHL games to date, Ehblad has 49 goals, 69 assists, and 118 points. He is a plus-7.
Assessing Defenseman Selected First Overall
In some ways, it is difficult to assess defenseman and their relative draft position. Defensemen take longer to develop and highly-rated forwards usually have a higher success rate in the NHL. Even a cursory look at past drafts suggests that few drafted players live up to the hopes of the teams that scout them. This is especially true for those on the blueline.However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear few defenseman selected first overall have made the sort of impact befitting their selection.
In 1992, alternatives to Hamrlik included center Martin Straka (19th overall) played 400 fewer games and scored more points. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar (14th overall) played longer and scored more points than any other defenseman selected in 2012 draft. Verdict: Fail
In 1994, alternatives to Jovanovski included forward Ryan Smith (6th overall) scored more points and played just as long. Defenseman Mattias Ohlund (13th overall) scored 343 points and was another defensive option that year. Verdict: Push
In 1995, it seems unfair to highlight possible alternatives given the eye injury to Berard. However, defenseman Wade Redden (2nd overall) and winger Jerome Iginla (11th overall) were both selected in the 1995 entry draft. Both were impact players over many years. Verdict: Fail
The 1996 draft was a strange one. Few of the top ten would make a significant impact in the NHL. Five of the ten players played less than 500 games. Alternatives: Forward Daniel Briere (24th overall) amassed nearly 700 points in his career. Defenseman Zdeno Chara (56th) has more than 600 points and still plays a significant role in Boston. Verdict: Fail
Selected in 2006, Erik Johnson was selected ahead of players like Toews (3rd overall), and Kessel (5th overall) both of whom have scored more points and been part of Cup winning teams. However, few defenseman in that draft year made the sort of impact Johnson did. Verdict: Push
In 2015, the Hockey News compiled a scouting panel to re-run the 2014 draft. Even with the benefit of hindsight and one more year of data, they concurred that Ekblad should have been taken first overall. With the additional benefit of a few more years of data, we can see that forwards Leon Draisaitl (3rd overall) and Nikolaj Ehlers (9th overall) scored more points to date. However, no other defenseman in that draft year has come close. Verdict: Pass
All In for Dahlin
Rasmus Dahlin is a responsible defenceman with significant offensive upside. His passing ability is outstanding. He can start the rush, make long breakaway passes, and quarterback the powerplay. Dahlin also has a blistering slap shot and a dangerous one-timer. He is a good stick-checker who can shut down forwards on the rush. While he is not the most physical player, he is a strong skater.
Patrik Bexell who has been following Dahlin for some time offers some additional insights based on Frölunda’s coaching staff. For example: “I have coached many, many good young players, in both club and national teams,” says Frölunda HC head coach Roger Rönnberg, “…Rasmus is most certainly among the top defenders of those teams.”
In many ways, Dahlin is what everyone refers to when they are talking about the modern day defenseman. Always moving forward, with insane puck handle skill, and that kind of fluid skating ability that we all love to see.
Jeff Marek believes that based on Dahlin’s performance a the World Junior Championship there is zero doubt who the top draft pick should be in June. He concludes: “Dahlin has everything you want in a defenceman in 2018. He can help turn a franchise around.” Have a look.
2018 NHL top prospect and 16-year old Rasmus Dahlin with a beautiful between-the-legs tip pass vs Örebro in the SHL. pic.twitter.com/dkyvf26x07
— Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) November 15, 2016
Past experience based on analysis over 25 years suggests selecting a defenseman first overall rarely succeeds. Despite this, in 2018 it seems unlikely this experience will guide whatever team wins the draft lottery. The NHL is all in on Dahlin.