The term “generational talent” is thrown around a lot these days. It was used to describe Rasmus Dahlin when he was selected first overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2018 NHL Draft. So far, he’s on pace to live up to that hype.
Dahlin is having one of the best seasons for a rookie defenseman in NHL history as an 18-year-old. His 38 points in 72 games this season have him tied with Bobby Orr for the second-most points by a rookie defenseman, behind only his current coach Phil Housley.
It’s not just the points that have made Dahlin special, it’s his overall impact on the Sabres this season. Only a few months into the season it became clear that he already was the best defenseman on the roster. His ice time and responsibility has grown as the season has gone on. With only 10 games remaining he’s the unquestioned number one defender on the team.
Looking at the RAPM model from Evolving Hockey, it shows just how impactful of a player he’s been this season at even strength. Dahlin is second among all defensemen on the team in xGF impact and the best defenseman in xGA impact. He’s the top defender on the club in overall xGPM and ranks third on the entire team.
The impressive analytic numbers continue with him leading all defensemen on the team in even strength goals above replacement and is fourth on the roster in overall GAR. In fact, he’s in the top 40 among all NHL defensemen in GAR as only an 18-year-old.
There’s no denying that the Sabres are a more effective team when Dahlin is on the ice. He has an on-ice xG percentage of 50.6 this season (best among all Sabres defenders) and he drives the play as the data above lays out.
Prior to Dahlin’s arrival with the Sabres, they struggled to consistently transition the puck from defense to offense. It stifled their offense and made them easy to play against when they couldn’t execute breakout passes.
His microstats show how impressive he’s been in transition for his team. The A3Z chart below from CJ Turtoro using data from Corey Sznajder’s game tracking; shows how good Dahlin has been in zone exits, zone entries, and preventing zone entries from the opponent. He’s not at the level of an elite transition defender like Erik Karlsson, but he’s in the conversation, which is again impressive for a player of his age.
Dahlin has been used to spark other defenders on the roster and nearly every player who has played on the right side with him (Zach Bogosian and Casey Nelson) have seen an increase in their metrics.
The young Swede is on pace for 43 points this season and although he’ll likely lose out on the Calder Trophy to fellow Swede Elias Pettersson; Dahlin has had an excellent rookie campaign. He’s given fans hope for the future and is undoubtedly the cornerstone defender the Sabres have been looking for.
Now, we’ll see if Jason Botterill can build a strong roster around his two elite players in Jack Eichel and Dahlin.