Travis Yost has been involved in the world of hockey analytics for a decade and is currently part of TSN's Hockey Analytics team. Prior to joining TSN, Travis was a contributor at the Ottawa Citizen, the Sporting News and NHL Numbers, and has been a consultant for an NHL franchise. He will be contributing breakdowns on the Buffalo Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost.
Playoffs or not, I think everyone in and around Buffalo recognized how critical the 2018-19 season would be from a player development standpoint.
And at least in terms of order of importance, nothing was more critical than ensuring that the Sabres' 18-year-old rookie defenseman had a smooth start to his NHL career.
It is quite rare to see an 18-year-old get the type of minutes Rasmus Dahlin has received this year.
Even though hockey has increasingly evolved into a young man’s game, teams are still generally protective of young puck-movers.
Since the 2007-08 season, only 29 other teenage defenders of similar age and disposition receive similarly high volume usage. Some of those players were a year older, and some of those players were utilized much less. At any rate, it’s not uncharted territory for Dahlin, but he’s certainly something of an exception to the standard NHL developmental curve:
It’s one thing for Dahlin to have the confidence of the coaching staff to deploy him this aggressively. The mere fact that the most common deployment comparables for Dahlin are players such as Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson should tell you everything you need to know about how the brain trust in Buffalo views Dahlin’s current talent and future potential.
But ice time is just one measure. Dahlin might have the confidence of the coaching staff, but that confidence can wane when the play doesn’t meet the pedigree. Case in point: Players such as Michael Del Zotto (20th overall, 2008) and Dmitry Kulikov (14th overall, 2009) were similarly utilized during their rookie years, but watched their ice time erode as their play slipped.
I don’t think that will be an issue with Dahlin. One of the points we have been beating all season is that the Sabres are a top-heavy team of the highest order. Performance from their core players is the reason why they are firmly in a playoff race, but performance across the rest of their roster (and ultimately, the majority of their players) is why they are going to be fighting until the finish despite a 10-game winning streak that should have all but solidified their playoff berth. The roster is understandably flawed and thin during this transition year. Right now, the team is just trying to patchwork things in the stretch run.
One way that Buffalo has been able to combat top-heaviness has a lot to do with how Dahlin is deployed. One of the hallmarks of a great NHL defenseman is that he can play in any situation with any range of teammates and drive performance. Historically speaking, most high-end defenders – not dissimilar to high-end wingers or high-end centers – can spike the production of their teammates when they are on the ice. With Dahlin, that means not only being able to manage the most important minutes (facing tough competition with Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and company), but also the peripheral minutes (playing with weaker talent against relatively weaker competition).
If we look at Dahlin’s "With Or Without You" numbers, we can measure performance by three separate strokes. First, we can see how Dahlin and a given player drive performance together. Then, we can look at how Dahlin plays away from a given player. And lastly, we can see how a player performs away from Dahlin. If we believe that Dahlin is the caliber defender we all think he is, we should be able to see consistent performance spikes whenever Dahlin sees a new teammate.
So far, that looks to be the case. Let’s look at it from two measures – Corsi percent (how well Dahlin and teammates drive play territorially), and Goal percent (how well Dahlin and teammates turn that offensive zone pressure into a goal advantage).
First, the Corsi percent measure:
Directionally, the trend is obvious. Both forwards and applicable defensive pairmates see reasonably strong performance from a Corsi percent perspective when playing with Dahlin. This makes sense – Buffalo has received 51.5 percent of the shots in its favor with Dahlin on the ice, and that’s been true across most of Buffalo’s lineup.
The only outliers tend to be guys who play in emphatic checking line roles (such as Vladimir Sobokta and, to some extent, Tage Thompson), or guys who just generally have poor performance numbers in the first place (such as Rasmus Ristolainen).
The key piece is that middle section – how Dahlin performs away from a given player. You can see that Dahlin isn’t reliant on any particular player or group of players to drive his performance. He’s nearly getting 50 percent of the shots when not playing with the likes of Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel, which seems almost impossible when you consider how top heavy this team has been.
The other side of the coin is also illuminating. Players see huge draw-downs in performance when they move away from Dahlin. In fact, the only regular teammate who has seen better results away from Dahlin has been forward Conor Sheary. Otherwise, it’s virtually all negative or flat. That’s a huge endorsement of Dahlin’s play; less so of the rest of the roster.
But the question you might ask – shots are great, but how does it drive goals? And does the trend change when we go to a goal-based analysis?
The trend is directionally the same but more dire in nature. Buffalo doesn’t have a goal problem when Dahlin is on the ice, and that’s regardless of who he is playing with. All the challenges within Buffalo’s lineup tend to come with Dahlin off the ice.
To that end, you are left with two questions: How does Buffalo go about building up the rest of the roster, and how much has the rest of the roster actually suppressed Dahlin’s impact in his rookie season? We have talked at length about the first question. The second one, not so much. But it’s an important consideration for both Jason Botterill and Phil Housley going forward.