Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, drafted by the Buffalo Sabres with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft on Friday, addresses a glaring weakness in their lineup for next season. He is a prototypical puck-moving defenseman and generational prospect that can be a game-changer for the Sabres and fantasy owners, both immediately and for many years to come.
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The native of Sweden is coming off an impressive season for Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League (20 points in 41 games) and for his country in the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo (top defenseman of tournament) and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. He was the obvious choice all along after the Sabres won the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery and is worth targeting among the top 20 defensemen with an even higher ceiling as an 18-year-old rookie.
Dahlin is likely to average more than 20 minutes per game and see significant power-play usage for the Sabres, maybe even on the first unit. Buffalo led the NHL in power-play percentage two seasons ago (24.5) but regressed to 20th last season (19.1). The 6-foot-3, 185-pound prospect should benefit from exposure to elite center Jack Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen; each missed time with injury last season but has excelled offensively in his NHL career.
The potential impact of Dahlin on Ristolainen, 23, is especially significant. Dahlin, who shoots left, could either be paired with Ristolainen, who shoots right, or anchor a separate duo to give the Sabres more depth. The Sabres also signed 22-year-old Lawrence Pilut, who was the SHL defenseman of the year and could help round out their top four in 2018-19.
Video: 2018 NHL Draft: Rasmus Dahlin
Ristolainen has the fifth most power-play points (69) among defensemen over the past three seasons but was inefficient and overused this season. His 26:30 per game ranked fourth in the NHL behind elite defensemen Drew Doughty (26:50), Ryan Suter (26:47) and Erik Karlsson (26:44).
A compelling storyline for the Sabres is that Dahlin will be playing for coach Phil Housley, who scored the most points (66) ever by an 18-year-old NHL defenseman for Buffalo in 1982-83. Here are some recent examples of 18-year-old defensemen who were fantasy-relevant with heavy workloads in their rookie seasons:
Aaron Ekblad, FLA (CAN), 2014-15: 81gm, 12G, 27A, 39P, plus-12, 13 PPP, 170 SOG, 21:49
Seth Jones, NSH (USA), 2013-14: 77gm, 6G, 19A, 25P, minus-23, 9 PPP, 100 SOG, 19:37
Cam Fowler, ANA (CAN), 2010-11: 76gm, 10G, 30A, 40P, minus-25, 23 PPP, 123 SOG, 22:08
Victor Hedman, TBL (SWE), 2009-10: 74gm, 4G, 16A, 20P, minus-3, 1 PPP, 90 SOG, 20:51
Drew Doughty, LAK (CAN), 2008-09: 81gm, 6G, 21A, 27P, minus-17, 16 PPP, 126 SOG, 23:50
There is definitely some concern regarding Dahlin's plus/minus given the totals above and Buffalo's defensive struggles, but all five of these defensemen with significant usage put forth at least decent category coverage within the scope of the position. Ekblad and Fowler reached double digits in goals and were fringe 40-point players, and Fowler and Doughty excelled on the power play. Hedman, who won his first Norris Trophy this week, is a fellow Swedish defenseman and a great example of Dahlin's ceiling down the road.
Ekblad, selected by the Panthers with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, is comparable to Dahlin in terms of projected fantasy relevance. Ekblad ranked second among Florida skaters in ice time behind veteran Brian Campbell (23:13) and covered all six standard fantasy categories in his rookie season despite the Panthers missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The addition of Dahlin could finally help the Sabres, who have missed the postseason in each of the past seven seasons, take the next step as a group. Eichel, 21, has totaled 121 points (49 goals, 72 assists) in 128 games over the past two seasons, indicating his full-fledged breakout could be coming soon.
Eichel is also one of the best shot generators in the NHL; his 3.51 shots on goal per game are tied with Patrick Kane for seventh since the former entered the League in 2015-16. If enough of those shots fall, it could mean a boatload of assists for Dahlin and Ristolainen next season.
Even though the Sabres moved left wing Evander Kane before the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline, they still have a workhorse center in Ryan O'Reilly behind Eichel, promising young forwards Sam Reinhart, 22, and prospect Casey Mittelstadt, 19, and a bounce-back candidate in Kyle Okposo. If the Sabres improve their goaltending this offseason, avoid significant injuries and return to their dominant power-play form, they could be the most-improved team in the NHL. Dahlin would likely be the biggest reason for such a resurgence.
Video: Looking at the Sabres' offseason plans
The best-case scenario for Dahlin would be for him to latch onto a pair and power-play unit with Ristolainen, improve the latter's two-way ability and help him become far less of a plus/minus liability (minus-102 in 346 NHL games). Dahlin should be considered a more valuable fantasy defenseman than Ristolainen based on upside, but not by much -- especially in a hits league (Ristolainen: 2.1 hits per game in NHL career).
Many fantasy owners will reach for Dahlin, and he could easily return value if he sees enough first power-play time and the Sabres make a drastic improvement. Dahlin is fair game to target in the seventh or eighth round of a standard draft (15-20 range among defensemen), and no pick is too high for him in a keeper or dynasty league.
Projection: 76 games, 8 goals, 35 assists, 43 points, minus-10, 18 PPP
Draft range in 12-team fantasy league: Rounds 7 of 8 (picks 73-96)