It has been an odd start to the season for Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. The 19-year-old has struggled with finding consistency through the first 13 games of the year. He’s played the second-lowest time on-ice per game (14:29) by all defensemen, only one second over Henri Jokiharju at 5 on 5.
The struggles go back to the preseason. Dahlin unexpectedly played in that final game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Head coach Ralph Krueger noted that he wanted to have the second-year defender work on his game away from the puck. It appears as though the new head coach had some things he wanted Dahlin to focus on defensively.
Of course, you want to see your future star on the blue line craft parts of his game and the defensive aspect is one area that needs some work. Unfortunately, the message from the coaching staff doesn’t appear to be translating in better performance in his end of the ice. It has resulted in the opposite.
Dahlin hasn’t been the same player we watched for 82 games last season. He looks to be overthinking and playing hesitantly. It’s resulting in him second-guessing his decisions and creating turnovers. He’s not carrying the puck with the same determination we saw last season or even generating the offense that makes him a special talent.
His on-ice shot quality is down significantly from last season when he had a 2.36 xGF/60 at 5 on 5. This season, his offensive shot quality numbers are down to a 1.88 xGF/60. Overall, he’s allowing a greater quantity of high-quality chances against than those being generated offensively, when he’s on the ice. Dahlin had a 50.69% xGF% as a rookie at 5 on 5 (scored and venue adjusted), but it has dropped down to 42.63% through 13 games this season.
The good news for the 2018 first overall pick is that he’s continued to produce amidst his struggles at even strength. Dahlin has 10 points in 13 games, but seven of those points have come with the man advantage. He’s done an excellent job as the quarterback on the top power play unit. However, that’s the only area that he’s found any consistency so far.
This is one example of why you’ll see some “numbers people” not put a lot of stock in point production as a way to evaluate players. If you just look at the points, on the surface, it would appear he’s off to a great start through the first month of the season. By watching the game and looking into some of his underlying numbers that I mentioned above, you can see the trouble he’s having so far at even strength.
This may be Krueger’s first real test as head coach of the Sabres. He needs to figure out what is prohibiting his stud defenseman from playing the style we saw last season. Part of it could be putting him with a new partner. It became clear that Colin Miller and Dahlin had some trouble reading off of each other. Over the last few games, he’s played better with Henri Jokiharju. We’ve even seen him create a few of those eyebrow-raising plays offensively.
Yesterday at practice he was skating on a pair with Brandon Montour. The Sabres could get him back into the lineup this weekend and that pair faired well in their limited time together last season. Both are free-wheeling players by nature, but it could spark that playing style we’re looking for from the Swedish defender.
There’s no need to have any panic about the youngster at this point. It’s not uncommon for a player of his age struggle in their sophomore season. He’ll likely find his game again and get back to being the exceptional impact player that we witnessed put together one of the best season’s by an 18-year-old defenseman in the history of the sport.