Written by: Sasank Vishnubhatla
With the NHL season right around the corner, young rookies are looking to crack a roster spot on the major club level. Be it through hard work or through established skill, recent draft picks are working to get playing time in the NHL, rather than work in the AHL or, for some, back in the junior hockey leagues. However, though he has yet to turn 19, Rasmus Dahlin knows that he will be one of the main defensemen for the up and coming Buffalo Sabres.
Dahlin, an 18 year old from Trollhattan, Sweden, was the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft for indisputable reasons. He skill-set, which was displayed beautifully at Swedish club Frolunda and at the 2017 World Junior Championship, includes elite skating and stickhandling, impressive agility, strong defensive mindset which easily flows into offensive prowess, and a well-natured physical game. Scouts have described him as the perfect mix between Erik Karlsson (2-time Norris Trophy winner) and Drew Doughty (Norris Trophy winner in 2015-16 and 2-time Stanley Cup Champion).
With so much hype around Dahlin, what can be expected this season from him? At the beginning of the season, one can be certain that he will not be the main defenseman for the team. Buffalo’s defensive core is built with Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian; two players who are well established stalwarts for Buffalo’s blueline. Dahlin will most likely work with Jake McCabe on the second defensive pairing. That means Dahlin’s time on ice should average around 19 to 20 minutes per game, a solid amount for the young 18 year old.
Offensively, Dahlin will have a “rover”-like impact. Much like Erik Karlsson, Dahlin is quick to join offensive rushes and uses his speed to recover on defense. Looking at Karlsson’s rookie stats, one can predict that Dahlin will put up 5 goals and 21 assists, totalling 26 points. However, Karlsson was a rookie in 2009, a time where the NHL was a significantly different league. A takeaway from Karlsson’s rookie year, though, is his Fenwick score. When Karlsson was on the ice, there was a 52.9% chance that his team, the Ottawa Senators, has more unblocked shot attempts than their opponent. This is important since Karlsson is known to take risks often and jump up in the offensive zone. Karlsson’s stat line and his Fenwick score will help find comparable young NHL players to base our expectations on for Dahlin.
Instead of just comparing Dahlin to a young Karlsson, it would help to compare Dahlin to last year’s rookie defensemen class. The big standouts last year were Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy. However, two other players, in their sophomore season, would also be helpful in this analysis: Ivan Provorov and Zach Werenski. Provorov and Werenski have a similar play style to Dahlin, as well as Sergachev and McAvoy - fast and accurate decision making, quick offensive transition, and silky smooth skating ability. These “Rookie Rovers” (including Provorov and Werenski) had an average Fenwick of 52.95%. When they were on the ice, their team on average was more offensive than defensive. Scoring wise, the “Rookie Rovers” averaged 11.00 goals, 26.83 assists, with a total of 37.83 points in around 76.33 games. Those are some very elite stats for a rookie, however the downside is the average total penalty minutes was 29.08. This average is skewed a bit from Charlie McAvoy’s 53 penalty minutes in his rookie season.
Looking back at the comparisons made, Dahlin is a mixture of Karlsson and Doughty. However, Karlsson and Doughty debuted in a different NHL standard that Dahlin. By combining our “Rookie Rovers” with Karlsson, we see that Dahlin should have the following average stat line: 11.33 goals, 30.50 assists, 41.83 points, 39.08 PIM, 52.48% Fenwick. These stats are elite for a rookie defenseman, but it is very possible that Dahlin exceeds these benchmarks due to his untapped and raw skill.