It’s no secret that the Buffalo Sabres currently lack quality depth at forward. Amid a string of injuries up front, one silver lining to that unfortunate reality has been the emergence of Rasmus Asplund. Through 13 games since being recalled on November 16, the 22-year-old has fit in nicely as a two-way presence in the Sabres’ middle-six.
The organization obviously feels that his inclusion in the lineup has proven beneficial. Even though most of the team’s injured forwards have returned since his initial call-up, Asplund has remained with the big club ahead of waiver-eligible veterans like Curtis Lazar and Jean-Sebastien Dea. He’s even skating on the de facto second line with Jeff Skinner and Marcus Johansson.
Ever since the Sabres moved up to select the two-way standout in 2016, fans have anxiously awaited his arrival in Buffalo. It’s still very early in his NHL career, but to this point he has performed as advertised. While his point production doesn’t exactly jump off the page (though, after being held off the score sheet in his first six contests, he has three points in his last seven), his contributions are apparent, especially when examining his underlying metrics.
One of the ways to gauge how effective a supposed two-way forward is performing pertains to expected goal-differential. Asplund ranks near the top of the Sabres’ roster in that regard, along with the members of the famed “LOG” line.
Considering that they share many of the same strengths, Asplund filled in nicely for Larsson while the veteran center was recovering from an upper-body injury. Interestingly enough, his best work has come alongside offensively inclined players like Jimmy Vesey and Jeff Skinner. In limited action, his best relative xG metrics have come alongside those two players. In just over 29 minutes of ice time together, he and Vesey have been on the ice for three goals-for and none against (again, small samples, but still worth noting)
From a Corsi standpoint, the early returns playing as a winger on Marcus Johansson’s line are solid as well. As previously mentioned, Asplund’s base stat line isn’t necessarily representative of a high-impact player. When you compare his actual production to his adjusted expectations however, it does inspire confidence that his contributions will eventually translate to more points (should he maintain his current level of play).
To go a step further, his on-ice shooting heat maps support what the analytics are telling us. While the Sabres’ shots-against are virtually the same both with and without him, their rate of excess shots-for per-hour has experienced a 21-percent bump with Asplund on the ice.
Aside from the obvious ratio increase, the change in high-danger concentration is staggering. Obviously, this impact isn’t solely due to his mere presence, but his immediate chemistry with a variety of linemates has certainly helped. Five seasons of professional hockey leading up to this season has probably helped his adjustment (or lack thereof) in that regard.
Defensively, it comes as little surprise that he’s proven capable at the NHL level. From his time in both the SHL and AHL, Asplund was recognized primarily for his ability as a defensive forward. Unsurprisingly, Ralph Krueger has weighted his overall zone-deployment to take advantage of this skill set. As of Sunday night, his offensive zone-start rate stood at only 39.47-percent. His ability as a transition player is also partially evidenced by his positive xG metrics (both for, and against) despite a lopsided deployment rate.
The fact that this rate remained nearly identical alongside a defensive liability in Vesey (while still posting positive xG metrics) shows that Asplund’s transitional impacts have the potential to not only offset said shortcomings, but also facilitate opportunities to capitalize on his linemate’s offensive strengths.
Encouragingly, his tangible offensive production came on slowly last season with the Amerks as well. That is, before he posted 24 points in his final 22 games to close out 2018-19. As he spends more time with offensively proficient counterparts, his offensive abilities should become even more apparent.
The Sabres simply do not have enough cost-controlled assets on the roster, especially on offense. Asplund’s continued growth and potential solidification of a spot in the middle-six would certainly help a Buffalo team that has left something to be desired beyond the top line. On top his analytical strengths, he brings additional grit and speed to the lineup while appearing to give it his all on every shift.
It remains to be seen whether or not he will remain with the big club once Vladimir Sobotka returns from injury, but he should. Even the most skeptical fan would be hard-pressed to argue against him as one of the 12 best forwards on the team. Jason Botterill might have to move a body to make it happen, but if the Sabres are serious about icing the best possible roster, Asplund belongs in blue-and-gold for the rest of the 2019-20 campaign.