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Behind The Numbers

Dahlin having historically good rookie season for Sabres

Defenseman among all-time elite players at position for first-year production

by Scott Cullen / Correspondent

Rasmus Dahlin has been outstanding, every bit as good as advertised. Maybe even better.

No. 1 picks in the NHL don't typically enter with a lack of fanfare. Instead, they are the shining hope for the future. Such was the case with Dahlin, the defenseman who was selected first by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2018 NHL Draft.

The Sabres had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for seven straight seasons when they won the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery. Buffalo (31-33-9) is likely to miss them again this season, 13 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference with nine games remaining.


[RELATED: Dahlin to face hero Hedman in Global Series]


In 73 games this season, Dahlin has 39 points (eight goals, 31 assists), first among rookie defensemen and third among all rookies.

The significance of those accomplishments come more sharply into focus when the historical context is considered.

Four teenage defensemen in the history of the NHL have produced more points than Dahlin in the season immediately after they were drafted: Buffalo's Phil Housley (66 in 1982-83), Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins (41 in 1966-67), Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks (40 in 2010-11) and Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers (39 in 2014-15).

If Dahlin can keep his current pace through the end of the season, he would catch all but Housley, now the coach in Buffalo.

Producing points immediately is impressive, but it's rare for an 18-year-old to jump straight from getting drafted to playing in the NHL and rarer still for a defenseman to average more than 20 minutes of ice time per game in his first season.

Since the NHL started tracking time on ice for the 1997-98 season, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings (23:50 in 2008-09), Jay Bouwmeester with the Panthers (20:09 in 2002-03) and Ekblad (21:49 per game in 2014-15) are the other teenage defensemen to average more than 20 minutes per game in the season immediately following their draft.

Video: Breaking down Dahlin's first NHL season with Buffalo

Since Nov. 15, Dahlin is averaging 22:11 of ice time per game, raising his season average to 21:08 per game, second among NHL rookies behind Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars, who was drafted in 2017

There's even more to illustrate the unique impact Dahlin is having in his rookie season.

By measuring shot differentials when a player is both on and off the ice, it's possible to see how much better a team is with a specific player on the ice. Since 2009-2010, the season the NHL started tracking shot differential, one player has had a better output than Dahlin (3.49) in the season following their draft: Ebklad (3.73). Dahlin makes his team significantly better when he's on the ice.

In virtually every aspect of the game, Dahlin has been performing at an elite level. When trying to assess Dahlin's potential long-term value, it's worth comparing his performance to some of the best current defensemen.

Looking at every Norris Trophy winner since 2000-2001, Doughty is the only one who played in the NHL immediately after he was drafted; he scored 27 points as a rookie. San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson wasn't in the NHL as an 18-year-old and had 26 points in 60 games with the Ottawa Senators at age 19. Doughty has won the Norris once and Karlsson twice.

That puts Dahlin well ahead of this generation's best offensive defensemen at the same age and indicates that he has legitimate Norris Trophy potential. Considering how well he compares to other Norris Trophy winners, Dahlin may be ready to enter that conversation relatively soon.

What's even more remarkable about Dahlin's season is that he's not likely to win the Calder Trophy as the top rookie.

Video: WSH@BUF: Dahlin one-times PPG from the circle

Among the past 20 Calder Trophy winners, three have been defensemen. Ekblad (2014-15), Tyler Myers (2009-10) and Barret Jackman (2002-03). So it's unusual for a defenseman to win the award. Two 18-year-olds have won it the past 20 years, Ekblad and Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.

But, it is not history conspiring against Dahlin, but rather a brilliant scoring forward staking his claim.

Elias Pettersson, the Vancouver Canucks center, has 63 points (27 goals, 36 assists) in 63 games and appears to be the frontrunner for the award. Pettersson's 1.00 points per game is far ahead of the rest of the rookie class; Andreas Johnsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs (0.61 points per game) ranks second among rookies to play at least 20 games. Pettersson ranks sixth among rookies since 2000-01, behind Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (1.31 in 2005-06), Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (1.26 in 2005-06), Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins (1.09 in 2006-07), Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (1.07 in 2015-16) and Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders (1.04 in 2017-18).

Pettersson is keeping exceptional company when it comes to point production, making him a worthy favorite for the Calder Trophy.

Pettersson's sensational rookie season and Buffalo's struggles should not diminish the contributions of Dahlin. He's having a historically impressive rookie season and looks to be every bit the star that the Sabres envisioned.

No. 1 picks may not enter the NHL with a lack of fanfare, but it's still possible that Dahlin hasn't received appropriate recognition for how great he has been this season.

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