Sabres’ Dahlin Poised For Bounce-Back Season

The Buffalo Sabres drafted Rasmus Dahlin with the first-overall selection back in the 2018 NHL Draft and had high hopes for him as a player. The expectations were high on him to produce as a rookie, and his results were quite impressive as an 18-year old. In the 2018-19 season, he scored nine goals and produced 44 points, and earned increased ice-time throughout the year.

When comparing his first-year stats to draft-day comparables in Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, he stacks up quite well. Karlsson returned to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) for a season after being drafted and played in the NHL the following year. As a 19-year old defenseman, he put up 26 points in 60 games for the Ottawa Senators. Hedman was drafted second overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, and put up 20 points in 74 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning. There are not many cases in NHL history where a player of Dahlin’s age has been able to come in and produce immediate results. He ranks second among defensemen in points per game of any defenseman to start in the NHL at 18-years-old in the past 30 years.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The problem with Dahlin’s game last season was playing under former head coach Ralph Krueger’s system, as it stagnated his performance. He was tasked with playing a dump-and-chase style, which did not benefit his ability to enter the zone with possession and make a skilled play. Once Don Granato took over as the interim head coach, he was able to play to his strengths again.

In this piece, I dove into the tape to explain Dahlin’s physical attributes, such as his elite puck-handling abilities, and look into the advanced statistics. This is why the eye test and results showcase that this player is likely to bounce back next season.

Dahlin’s Puck Handling Abilities Are Among NHL’s Best

When Dahlin played for Frölunda HC of the SHL, he displayed exceptional confidence and poise with the puck. Here is an example of Dahlin driving to the net and scoring, as he received the pass in the neutral zone and pivoted when entering the offensive zone. Upon bringing the puck to his forehand, he looked in front of him to see that the opposing defender gave him a clear lane to the net. He utilized the opportunity, and shifted the puck to his backhand, and scored a terrific goal.

(via @championshockey on Twitter)

Now let’s dive into his puck handling skills at the NHL level. This past season, he scored an exceptional goal against the Boston Bruins, and it came from his instincts at the blueline to maintain possession. Henri Jokijarju deserves a lot of credit on this play, as he retrieved the puck from the boards. Instead of firing a low percentage shot on the net, he decided to pass to Dahlin, who is open at the blueline. Sean Kuraly of the Bruins is caught puck watching, and Dahlin took advantage of that by using his quick edgework to pivot ninety degrees and opened up a clear shooting lane for himself.

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He took the extra second and winds up for the slapshot as he noticed Sam Reinhart, the former Sabre, providing the screen leading to the goal. Playing under Krueger at the beginning of last season, Dahlin did not look this confident with the puck.

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(via Sportsnet on Youtube)

One final example is from a Sabres game last season against the New Jersey Devils, where Dahlin assisted on a Casey Mittelstadt power-play goal to give the team the lead. Reinhart made the initial pass to the defenceman, who is patrolling the blueline, but he tried to receive it on his backhand, and it caused him to lose possession. Travis Zajac, a former member of the Devils, swiped at the puck as he attempted to clear it, but Dahlin adjusted his body positioning to keep the play alive in the offensive zone. By doing so, he got the puck back to his forehand, and as Devils forward Pavel Zacha forechecked him, he brought the puck to his backhand to deke around him to open up more space. He had a clear passing lane to Mittelstadt, who is left alone in front of the net, and he deflected it in.

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(via Sportsnet on Youtube)

Dahlin is still improving, but he has showcased glimpses of brilliance throughout his young career so far. It’s evident when watching the game tape of his plays that he will be a premier defender in this league. He is on the verge of being a consistently dangerous player.

Dahlin Results In Past Two Seasons Are Unlikley To Repeat

As mentioned earlier, Dahlin provided high expectations after his rookie season, not just from traditional stats, but also advanced stats. Looking at his three-year weighted Wins Above Replacement, he has progressively gotten worse since his first season. When evaluating a player using JFresh Hockey’s model, it is important to remember that it heavily considers finishing ability. Dahlin ranked in the 15th percentile in that category, so that contributed to his low WAR rating.

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The following chart comes from JFresh Hockey, using data from InStat Hockey, a website that provides detailed scouting reports on players and teams and tracks various stats like the one shown below. Dahlin is in an excellent category, stacking up to the likes of Cale Makar and Roman Josi.

(via @JFreshHockey on Twitter)

Another aspect to keep in mind when using public models to evaluate players is being diverse. Look at different models to see if they paint a different story on a player. These models rely heavily on point production from a given season instead of advanced stats like expected goals. The following chart comes from Bryon Badar again, but this one uses an NHL equivalency model (NHLe) to evaluate Dahlin before his draft year to the present day. His star probability has increased every season, and he predicts to have a 96 percent chance of being a star at the NHL level.

(via @BryonMBadar on Twitter)

By combining the eye test and the analytics, these tools tell us that Dahlin is a high-risk and high-reward player. He has the ability to change a game on his own, often attempting to make a skilled play as opposed to a safe play. The talent is there, but his defensive shortcomings and lack of finishing ability have kept him from blossoming into a star. If he can play to the level that he showcased under Granato to end last season, he has a great chance of breaking out into a superstar for the next decade.

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