NHL teams use the draft and player development to sign elite talent to an affordable contract. Blockbuster trades can cost important draft capital, while free-agent acquisitions can lock an organization into hefty contracts that cause cap trouble.
Drafting and developing players can seem random, time-consuming, and difficult. However, the reward of a top contributor making less than $1-million on a team’s payroll can make that investment of time worthwhile. Unfortunately, developing talent is not the only concern for NHL franchises.
For prospects drafted out of European leagues, NHL teams often have to entice them away from their local professional teams. Kirill Kaprizov, for instance, put up four quality seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League before moving to North America. However, Kaprizov was worth the wait and is on pace for the first 100-point season in Minnesota Wild history.
Not that the San Jose Sharks have a similar talent, but the organization did have to convince Jonathan Dahlen to leave his native Sweden for the Bay Area. After a bad first impression in North America with the Utica Comets, he returned home to dominate the Swedish second division and helped promote his hometown club, Timra IK, to the Swedish Hockey League.
He signed a one-way contract with the Sharks and was protected in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft ahead of the 2021-22 season. Sadly, his rookie season has been filled with slumps and injuries despite the lofty expectations.
For the second time this season, Dahlen was a healthy scratch for the team’s overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers, when San Jose potted just one goal. Although his season has been full of slumps that prompted head coach Bob Boughner to pull him from the lineup, the Swedish winger is still fourth in goals on the team, behind Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture.
Dahlen Should Be a Lineup Lock
According to MoneyPuck, Dahlen’s stats indicate a quality even-strength contributor. At 5v5, he’s expected to score 0.92 goals per-60 minutes, which is second only to his former linemate, Meier. In actual goals per 60-minutes, he’s behind Meier and Hertl, but notably sporting a better rate than Couture and Alexander Barabanov.
However, three of his 12 goals, came on the man advantage. Most of his remaining nine goals have been assisted by a top player, usually Meier. It’s fair to say Dahlen needs a top contributor to be an effective scorer, but most of the team’s forwards have struggled when not with Meier or Hertl.
Players who have not played with Meier or Hertl have not produced well this season. The Sharks only have four forwards above a half-point per game; the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and Arizona Coyotes are either the same or better. The Sharks’ offense is one of the worst in the league.
With Meier and Couture, to form the top line at the start of the season, Dahlen and company flourished. Among lines that have 300 or more minutes played together, that group controlled 56.6% of expected goals, which ranks 16th league-wide, according to MoneyPuck. Breaking up that line had a massive impact on Dahlen’s season.
Dahlen’s Defensive Play and Identity
As a former defenseman, Boughner often preaches a defense-first message to his players. His style of coaching, especially this season, was to build a solid and detailed defense structure. After all, the Sharks can’t boast similar offensive talent to their Pacific Division counterparts.
But, Dahlen’s defensive results are not horrible despite his slightly sheltered minutes. He starts in the offensive zone fourth most often on the team. Still, he has one of the better impacts on shots (Corsi for%) at 47%, tied for third on the team with Rudolfs Balcers behind Meier and Hertl.
With Dahlen on the ice, the Sharks control expected scoring 1.9% better. While that seems minuscule, players used instead of him, like Matt Nieto and Noah Gregor, among others, have a negative impact. Despite his flaws, particularly his lackluster skating and ineffective forechecking, he still has a positive impact. The Sharks have scratched not only their fourth-leading goal scorer but one of their most impactful talents multiple times this season.
Recent Play and Restricted Free Agency
This offseason, the Sharks are likely to have roughly $13 million in cap space to sign unrestricted free agent Barabanov and restricted free agents (RFAs) Mario Ferraro, Kappo Kahkonen, and Dahlen. With the remaining money, management will likely look to add offensive talent.
The team averaged 2.27 goals in their last 11 games. That’s below their fourth-worst average of 2.61 per game this season; the Winnipeg Jets average 3.07 to rank 16th. The Sharks’ inconsistent play from their players, including Dahlen, is responsible for that. He has just one goal since the start of February. For a player expected to be a top-six offensive contributor, that’s unacceptable. But, it’s hard to blame Dahlen. After hardly scoring for two months, he still slots comfortably into fourth on the team in goals, so he’s not the only one struggling.
Dahlen’s early-season success with Couture and Meier indicates he can be a secondary scoring option, but he needs greater talent alongside him to excel. The Sharks will hope William Eklund (returning), developing other young players, and perhaps adding talent in free agency can support Dahlen to have a better season in 2022-23.
It would be illogical not to re-sign the team’s fourth-leading scorer, whose scoring struggles coincided with the team’s fall down the standings. However, averaging less than half a point per game this season, I expect a similar contract to Balcers’ extension last offseason. A one or two-year deal, worth under $2-million against the salary cap, would give Dahlen another small window to show he can produce at the NHL level and deserve a larger contract in the future.
What do you think of Dahlen’s rookie season so far? Let me know in the comment section below.
Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!