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Building a Calder resume for Rasmus Dahlin

Making the case for the Sabres defenseman to win rookie of the year

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Updating a resume can be an intimidating but necessary exercise. 

This is especially true when going up for a coveted position against other quality candidates, which is the situation Rasmus Dahlin finds himself in as a finalist for the 2019 Calder Trophy. The winner will be revealed at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 19. 

Both of Dahlin's competitors for the trophy are worthy in their own right. Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson scored 10 goals in his first 10 games and ran away with the rookie scoring race. Jordan Binnington backstopped the St. Louis Blues to the playoffs, posting a league-best 1.89 goals-against average in the process.

All Dahlin did was turn in one of the all-time seasons by an 18-year-old defenseman, delivering on the hype that followed him in the months leading up to his No. 1 selection at the draft last summer. 

Since we know that updating a resume is never any fun, we took the liberty of building one for him. 

 

Work Experience

Dahlin was one of six rookies to play all 82 games this season, but he's in historical company when you consider his age. He was the fifth player - and first defenseman - to skate a full 82-game schedule ahead of his 19th birthday. 

The others? Nathan MacKinnon, Chris Gratton, Jeff Skinner and Vincent Lecavalier. 

Over those 82 games, Dahlin skated 1,735 minutes. According to Hockey Reference, that's the second-highest total by a player in their age-18 season, behind Florida Panthers defenseman (and Calder Trophy winner) Aaron Ekblad. 

The next closest player on that list is Sidney Crosby, at 1,630 minutes. The next closest defenseman is Jakob Chychrun, at 1,133.

In other words, Dahlin was used in a way that's nearly unprecedented for an 18-year-old defenseman. The one precedent, Ekblad, has a Calder Trophy to show for his campaign. 

Factor in the hectic schedule Dahlin had in the year leading up to his NHL debut - 47 games in the Swedish Hockey League, stints at World Juniors and the Olympics, plus all the media and team obligations that come with being a top prospect ahead of the draft - and his workload becomes even more impressive. 

Zach Bogosian came into the league as a heralded 18-year-old defenseman, thus knowing the amount Dahlin had on his plate coming into the year.

"From the time you come in at 18, from your draft, to the combine, to development camp, to rookie camp, to training camp, to preseason, to the season - it adds up," Bogosian said.

"He's handled it well. I think over time, as a veteran, the more and more games he plays, he'll get more comfortable and know situations, know how to take care of himself more, how to be more professional. It comes with just playing games, and he's done an amazing job of it."

 

Skills

Decision making

Dahlin played his first game in a Sabres sweater in front of a packed house at Harborcenter, during Buffalo's Prospects Challenge opener against New Jersey in early September. He scored two goals, the second of which came on a rebound deep in the left faceoff circle.

After the game, Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor - who was manning the bench for the Sabres prospects - marveled at the play.

"His instincts are amazing," Taylor said. "A lot of guys wouldn't have scored his second goal. Obviously, it was a great shot off the pads for him to get that, but a lot of defensemen would have probably pulled back on that. He's got those instincts to go in there and get that."

A bit more than a month later, Dahlin exhibited those same instincts on his first NHL goal in Arizona. Skinner weaved his way through the Coyotes defense and took a shot off the rush, setting up Dahlin to clean up the rebound.

Video: BUF@ARI: Dahlin nets a loose puck for his first goal

He'd do it again during the Sabres' comeback win in Minnesota the following month.

Video: BUF@MIN: Dahlin buries loose puck to tie the game

Dahlin's instinctual exploits weren't limited to burying rebounds. Remember his backcheck in overtime against San Jose, when he lunged to break up a scoring chance for Erik Karlsson?

Dahlin broke that play down - along with an undressing of Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh and a memorable end-to-end rush against Nashville - in a conversation with Martin Biron from December:

Video: Tablet Talk: Rasmus Dahlin

 

Ability to thrive under pressure

For all his offensive abilities, Dahlin was touted primarily as a player who would help the Sabres get the puck out of their own zone. The numbers suggest he made a positive impact in that regard. 

Dahlin's 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage of 51.91 ranked fifth among rookie defensemen (min. 500 minutes). As for goal creation, he led rookie defensemen by a wide margin in terms of relative goals-for percentage (7.58), which weighs a team's scoring when a player is on the ice compared to when he's not. 

Only seven rookie defensemen had positive impacts in that regard, according to Natural Stat Trick, the closest being Tampa Bay's Erik Cernak (5.73). 

OK, so what about the eye test? Let's think back to Buffalo's game in Edmonton on Jan. 14, a lopsided loss for the Sabres that may have doubled as Dahlin's best game of the season. He broke the puck out in highlight-reel fashion on multiple occasions, whether he was threading a pass to Conor Sheary in the neutral zone:

Or, later, launching a high-arching pass from deep in his own end that hit Tage Thompson on the tape at the opposing blue line:

These are extreme examples of an aspect of Dahlin's game that we saw regularly throughout the season, which is his ability to quickly and creatively find breakout options from his own zone. That ability to thrive under pressure extends to the offensive end, too.

Here he is in that San Jose game, passing behind Karlsson's back - to himself - to evade pressure and create a race to a loose puck:

And here he is in Minnesota, dancing between defenders before setting up a scoring chance from the right circle:

"You could see he kind of had his swagger out there, he had his confidence," fellow defenseman Jake McCabe said that night. "He was moving the puck, he was shaking and baking out there, really. His deceptiveness is really fun to watch as just a player in general. Tonight, he was at the top of his game."

 

Teamwork

So, what do you get when you combine elite instincts and time spent in the offensive zone? In Dahlin's case, you get 35 assists, which led rookie defensemen and ranked second among all rookies (behind Pettersson). 

Those assists were the foundation of a point total (44) that ranked second among 18-year-old defensemen in NHL history, ahead of names like Ekblad and Bobby Orr. 

He spliced defenses as he drove and found seams in the offensive zone:

Video: BUF@MIN: Dahlin, McCabe combine for pretty goal

He set forwards loose with circus passes in the neutral zone:

Video: BUF@EDM: Mittelstadt tips in the opening goal

And he quarterbacked the power play, tallying 20 of his points with the extra man:

Video: OTT@BUF: Olofsson rips one-timer past Daccord for PPG

So, yeah, it's safe to say he works well with others. 

 

Proficient in Microsoft Office

I mean, he's 19. This seems like a safe assumption.

 

References

Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian: "I think he's just on another level. He sees the game differently. There's certain guys when you look around the room, not everyone looks and thinks the game like Jack. Not everyone looks and thinks the game like Rasmus. 

"There's certain guys that have that special gift. There's plenty of guys in this room that are great players, really good team guys, but it's obvious every night that there's something different about Ras. It's easy to point out. He's a super special player. He does things out there that not a lot of people would either see or try. He can do both."

 

Sabres captain Jack Eichel: "I can't say enough good things. You guys obviously see him on the ice. That in itself is pretty incredible. But just being able to get to know him and interact with him every day, he's one of the best kids I've ever met. To be as good a player as he is and just be so humble, he really has it figured out. It excites me to think about it because he hasn't turned 19 yet.

I just think about when I was 18, where I was, and thinking about the strides he's going to make over the next few years. We couldn't be luckier to have him. I look forward to seeing him grow. He's going to be an absolute stud in this league, one of the best for sure. We're super lucky to have him." 

 

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson: "I wasn't very good when I was 18, a lot smaller. It took me a little longer, probably, to find my stride, whereas for him it feels like he's ready to play right now. He's obviously doing a great job at it. That's something I didn't have at that age. So, comparing the two of us from where he is right now, he's miles ahead." 

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