Player Profile: Rasmus Dahlin is the real deal
April 28th 2018. That’s the day the phrase known as “buffaluck” finally met its end, at least for a little while. Going into the lottery, the Sabres had a 18.5% chance of selecting first overall, where they could finally get the defenseman they’ve been dreaming about for so long.
The Sabres desperately needed to turn the page on what had transpired in rebuild 1.0 and start anew. However, when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly turned over that card for first overall, revealing the Sabres had won, it was more like the entire book being tossed.
It’s one thing to win the first overall pick, it’s another to win it in a draft where the consensus top pick plays a style and position of dire need for your organization. In case you haven’t heard by now, Rasmus Dahlin has been the talk of the 2018 draft for about two years now. The 6’2 183 pound defenseman from Trollhattan, Sweden is considered the total package of skill, speed and confidence while he makes his mark against adult players in the Swedish Elite League.
Most hockey fans in North America will only have seen Dahlin in the world juniors and whatever clips they could find on youtube, so I asked Uffe Bodin, the editor in chief of hockeysverige, to give a brief scouting report on the soon to be Sabres blueliner.
“Rasmus Dahlin is pretty much a unique player. It’s so rare to see a defenseman with his skill set and physical attributes. His skating is so fluid and effortless. That combined with his hockey sense and puck control makes him a great puck carrier. He’s really skilled with the puck and when he takes control of the game, he could deke veteran guys in the SHL at 17.
“It’s just like the game slows down for him. He has scored some really insane goals in the SHL, Bobby Orr style, where he would take the puck in his own zone and just skate right through the opposing team. He might not be able to do that in the NHL obviously, but just having the guts and the confidence to try that at his age is pretty amazing. He doesn’t shy away from physical plays either. He has thrown some huge hits over these past two seasons in the SHL.
“Weaknesses? As everyone of that age, he will need to evolve his defensive game. He’s still a work in progress in the d zone, where he loses track of opposing players every now and then. Sometimes, he also gets punished for being too brave when trying too much on his own. But those are things that he’ll learn to deal better with as he grows older and gets more comfortable in the NHL. Just developing more of a risk aversion.”
The first thing I took from Uffe’s analysis is that the game slows down for Dahlin. This is not the first time someone has told me that and it’s something we’ve heard a lot with some of the NHL’s current stars like Patrick Kane.
It’s also encouraging to hear that he isn’t shy about being involved physically. Obviously, the NHL is a bit of a different beast than the SHL with regards to physicality, but his willingness to be involved will serve him well in tough battles against strong opponents (and he’ll likely see the best from each team).
One last question I asked Uffe is which side Dahlin is most comfortable playing on as this has been somewhat of debate among Sabres fans. He said “I’ve mostly seen him on the left side. Guessing that’s his preference.” There’s been a lot of talk over the last decade or so about the importance of playing defensemen on their strong side or off hand. Studies such as this one http://thesportjournal.org/article/utilizing-the-defensemans-off-hand-a-discussion-of-theory-and-an-empirical-review/ have found that playing defensemen on their off hand have led to a higher success rate for puck containment, passing between defensemen and one-timer shots, but this puts a lot of focus on the offensive zone. A study done by Domenic Galamini Jr. in 2016 https://hockey-graphs.com/2016/03/04/quantifying-the-importance-of-handedness/ found that balanced pairings produced markedly better results in both shot attempts for/against and expected goals for than those where both defenders shot the same way. While the first study focused more on offensive zone advantages, the second study paints a better picture on why having Dahlin play his strong side is better suited for him long term. Speaking strictly through the eye-test it’s not uncommon to see defensemen who have been moved to their off hand have their abilities almost limited in terms of how they move the puck and help transition from defense to offense. Having said that, I wouldn’t expect a full time role on his strong side to suddenly allow Dahlin to produce like a first pair defenseman in his rookie season.
It’s never fun to say when talking about top prospects, but managing expectations is key with Dahlin. As Uffe pointed out, we’re talking about a very young defenseman here who is still prone to making rookie mistakes, primarily in the defensive end. He may also try to do too much, like most rookies do, but these are hardly concerns you’d consider red flags. These will be natural growing pains for Dahlin over the course of his rookie season and it’s important for Jason Botterill, Phil Housley and the fans to understand the patience required when developing a young defenseman.
The great news for Sabres fans is that’s about as negative as you can get with this pick. The sky is the limit for Dahlin and the numbers back it up. Advanced stats aren’t commonplace in European leagues (at least not publicly), but a while ago a graphic made its way around Twitter about the league leaders in Corsi (shot attempts for/against) at that point in the season.
Keep in mind, this is when Dahlin was just 16 years old. The ability to tilt the ice in your team’s favor at that age is simply incredible.
If you’re not impressed by that, here are a few more statistics that should have you convinced.
This year Dahlin finished with a points per game of 0.488, which ranked him 15th among all SHL defenders. The last draft eligible defenseman to rank 15th or higher in that league was Victor Hedman, who put up exactly the same points per game total. That number also happens to rank Dahlin fifth among all 17-year-olds to ever play in the Swedish Elite League at any position. With 20 points, Dahlin had a higher point total at age 17 than both Henrik and Daniel Sedin combined.
All seven of Dahlin’s goals this year were at even strength, which ranks him third among SHL defensemen. Even without filtering for even strength goals, the list of 17-year-olds at any position with that many goals is scarce. In fact, Dahlin ranks 6th in goal scoring among all 17-year-olds to ever play in that league. The only defenseman to score more than him at that age was Tom Jonsson, who scored nine goals in 1960. After Dahlin, the next closest defender on that list is Adam Larsson (four, two of which were power play markers).
It may seem odd to fixate on one particular game state, but fans lost in the lottery hype aren’t necessarily appreciating the greatness of what he accomplished. The ability to score that many goals as a defender at that age at even strength implies something the Sabres have been missing from the blue line for so long: the ability to create. It took the Sabres defense core 1848 minutes to score their first goal of the 2017-18 season. There are a number of factors to consider for why that was the case, but the most important one that everyone seemed to agree on was that the defense simply couldn’t create. There was no rushing ability, zone exits took three or four players and in zone passes and shots from the point in the offensive zone were so bad that apology letters were being written to Alexei Zhitnik.
Take a look at this goal from Dahlin…
That goal is probably the best way to summarize all of Dahlin’s qualities. The puck movement, puck protection, skating ability and finishing. All of these qualities put together is exactly what makes Dahlin a dangerous weapon from the blue line. It may take some time for him to hone these skills and there will be bumps along the way, but Dahlin has all the tools to be one of the NHL’s best defensemen for many years.