Examining Dahlin’s performance in year two

The 19-year-old has experienced some ups and downs in his second full season with the Sabres

“Generational” is a funny term. It’s probably overused when describing NHL prospects, considering how it seems to be attached to a different player every other year. Naturally, with that label comes high expectations. In his second season with the Buffalo Sabres, Rasmus Dahlin’s billing as “generational” has been questioned by some.

As a 19-year-old defenseman, it’s far too early to predict just how high his ceiling ultimately ends up being. That being said, examining his impacts in year two was an interesting endeavor. The advanced metrics are very open to interpretation, and can be manipulated to suit both sides of the “generational” narrative (both for, and against). Let’s take a look at the numbers and try to put them in context.

We’ll start with my personal favorite metric - deployment. On a blue line that has been shuffled more than a casino deck, Dahlin’s partners have actually been pretty consistent. He’s spent by far the most time alongside Colin Miller and Brandon Montour (257:58 and 227:39, respectively) at even-strength. In relatively even sample sizes, his statistical disparity between the two draws an interesting contrast.

We’ll start with Miller. Together, their relative Corsi as a duo is slightly positive at .61-percent on the year. Both players have experienced modest upticks in that area away from one another, but the really interesting gap lies in their expected-goals. As a pairing, they’ve been pretty break-even at .74-percent on the year. While Dahlin has posted slightly worse numbers away from him, Miller has posted significantly improved numbers sans the 19-year-old, registering a 4.00-percent relative xG in roughly the same amount of minutes (258:33).

Leading up the the season, these two had the potential to be a strong pairing with complimentary skill sets. During his time with the Vegas Golden Knights last season, Miller posted excellent defensive metrics in his RAPM numbers. While he did a lot of his damage in third-pairing minutes, the potential was there for him to be a defensively responsible presence for a free-wheeling defenseman like Dahlin.

Their underlying numbers as a duo are fine, but why aren’t they better (because on paper, they should be)? For one thing, Dahlin’s adjustment into Ralph Krueger’s system hasn’t been seamless, and he’s been a lot more conservative as a puck-carrier than he was as a rookie. This appears to be symptomatic of the contrast between Krueger and Phil Housley’s respective approaches, as nothing has changed in relation to his zone-deployment. One of the few things Housley actually did right last season was allowing Rasmus Dahlin to be, well, Rasmus Dahlin.

If the Sabres coaching staff wants to keep these two together, they might consider playing them in a more defensive zone-heavy deployment to capitalize on their respective abilities to exit the zone, and assist in the offensive transition. Another factor to consider here is how inconsistently Miller has been in the lineup this season. As a frequent healthy scratch, perhaps he’s struggled to maintain a semblance of chemistry with his teenage contemporary.

Recently, Miller has played a more consistent role in the defensive top-six, and his metrics alongside Dahlin have improved as a result. Last night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they were on the ice for two goals-for and none against, posting an xG-percentage of 86.91 (the best mark among the three primary defensive pairings on the evening).

Flipping over to Montour, the roles have been somewhat reversed. Their impact as a pairing is very strong in terms of relative Corsi (4.6-percent), and while their relative xG metrics don’t exactly jump off the page at -1.49-percent, when compared to the rest of the Buffalo defense, that mark is actually above-average.

Individually, Montour hasn’t been great this season from an analytics standpoint, but Dahlin’s impact on him as a partner has been outstanding. When deployed alongside the young Swede, Montour’s relative Corsi has experienced a 7.14-percent delta. Same goes for his xG, which his 3.58-percent better with Dahlin than without him. The impact is further illustrated in comparison to his time with Rasmus Ristolainen, his second most consistent partner in 2019-20. It also explains why the aforementioned data disparity with and without Dahlin is a bit inflated, but still represents a significant improvement from Montour’s individual average.

As a sort of  “new-age” defensive defenseman, Montour’s best asset is his ability to exit the zone. While the Dahlin-Montour pairing has fared nicely this season, it could create an even bigger impact if said transition ability could be further capitalized upon by Dahlin joining the offensive rush, similar to how he did under Housley.  Again, as mentioned with the Dahlin-Miller pairing, a heavier defensive-zone deployment might be a better approach. Montour’s offensive zone impacts aren’t good, and playing him in an OZS-heavy role partially takes away what he does best (a concept Chad DeDominicis illustrated earlier this month).

Another important thing to reiterate in all of this is the fact that xG numbers are way down across the entire Sabres blue line this season. Part of that is attributed to Krueger’s strategy (which is more defensively conservative) but a great deal of the problem lies in the forwards’ inability to capitalize on well-orchestrated zone-exits from their defensive counterparts.

Across the board, expected-goals-against are improved, but when your blueliners’ offensive contributions consist solely of center ice dump-ins and point-shots, unless your forwards are doing their part on the forecheck (they aren’t), the xGF numbers will likely suffer.

In terms of raw production, Dahlin’s base statistics are up from last season. Over an 82-game season, he’d be pacing out to register 59 points compared to his 44-point output from last season. His even-strength scoring ratio is about the same at 54-percent (16 of his 35 points so far have been on the power-play).

Circling back to the original question, has Dahlin improved this season? There is no question that he struggled early-on, which wasn’t exactly a surprise in a brand new system with a fresh set of faces on the Buffalo blue line. Oddly enough, since returning from the concussion he sustained at the end of November, his play has actually improved quite a bit.

While his individual Corsi and expected-goals numbers are down 1.24, and 4.82-percent, respectively from a year ago, he’s still producing points, and has accounted for solid impacts with the right partners (namely Montour). The most encouraging thing is how he’s adjusted to Krueger’s way of doing things as the year has progressed (as mentioned above). That adjustment is a good indication that his skill set isn’t exclusively predicated on his ability to join the offensive rush (though we’d all like to seem him do it more).

So, while he probably hasn’t experienced the second-year leap many were expecting, he’s still very much a future franchise defenseman. Given the tactical changes we’ve seen, the negative advanced impacts at even-strength aren’t shocking (though you’d certainly expect to see them continue to improve over the last two months of the season).

How he finishes the 2019-20 campaign and performs next season under Krueger (barring something unforeseen) will be key, but as the second-highest scoring teenage defemseman in NHL history, the “generational” label could obviously still apply. Perhaps in his second year with the team, the head coach will feel more comfortable giving his defensive cornerstone a little more freedom with the puck. Stay tuned.

Teammate TOI, Corsi, and xG data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

RAPM Chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey

WOWY Charts courtesy of Hockeyviz

xG Differential Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey