Top pick Dahlin’s been strong for Sabres, who should unleash him

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Conventional wisdom argues that a slow approach might be a wise one with Rasmus Dahlin.

Consider that the top pick of the 2018 NHL Draft is just 18, and won’t turn 19 until April. Dahlin isn’t just adjusting to life in the NHL; the slick Swede also must deal with being in a new country, with all the culture shocks and different ice surface headaches that come with that.

So, yes, on paper, it makes sense that the Buffalo Sabres are handing Dahlin a solid-but-unspectacular ice time average of 18:07 per game.

That said, this is a young man’s game, and Phil Housley would be wise to wonder if we’re soon approaching the time when he should really extend Dahlin’s leash.

For one thing, more NHL teams are just letting their youngest, most talented players loose, and are reaping some nice rewards. The Senators could have spun their wheels with porous defensemen because experience; instead Thomas Chabot has been fantastic, helping the team avoid total embarassment. The Stars have acknowledged the writing on the wall – not to mention John Klingberg‘s injury – by handing big minutes to 19-year-old Miro Heiskanen. For all of the Blackhawks’ missteps, rolling with Henri Jokiharju (also 19) has been both bold and shrewd.

Those teams are leaning on young defensemen in bigger roles for two reasons: 1) they’re really good and 2) those guys are just about unanimously better options than other blueliners on their flawed rosters.

Such logic could absolutely apply to Dahlin and the Sabres.

To start, Dahlin’s been strong.

OK, you won’t be blown away by Dahlin’s offense. So far, he’s generated his first NHL goal and six assists for seven points in 17 games, not quite a point every other night. If that’s your only measure for a blueliner, Dahlin falls into “acceptable shoulder shrug” territory.

For a player who’s brand new and fresh from the draft, Dahlin’s deeper numbers are quite impressive, however. As you can see from places like Hockey Reference, Dahlin’s possession numbers are impressive, whether you look at the stats without context or if you consider them relative to his Sabres teammates.

While Dahlin’s getting more offensive zone starts (51.7-percent versus 48.3-percent), it’s not like he’s getting babied like Mikhail Sergachev was by the Lightning last season. That’s a pretty even workload.

There’s a solid chance that, while Dahlin is enjoying decent power play reps (2:36 per game), he might be worthy of more opportunities there. Housley might at least want to experiment with Dahlin on the penalty kill more often as the season goes along, as Dahlin’s logging just seven seconds per night shorthanded.

His smarts, skating, and skills could be quite useful in … just about every situation, particularly when you consider the alternatives.

Stop trying to make Rasmus Ristolainen, workhorse No. 1 defenseman, happen

One of the hopeful side effects of landing Dahlin was that, ideally, Ristolainen would slot into a more comfortable spot. By more comfortable spot, people mean “not as the guy far and away the most ice time on your team.” Instead, he’s averaging 25:15 per night, more than five minutes above any other Sabres skater.

If you’ve followed Ristolainen’s career, you know that his possession stats have been bad, and often slipped to “full-on disaster” territory. That’s continued by just about every metric this season.

Ristolainen hasn’t really been a spectacular scorer considering his opportunities, and it’s plausible that Dahlin may already be a slightly more useful asset on the power play.

But it’s in the other areas where the Sabres should think long and hard about taking opportunities/burdens away from Ristolainen and giving them to Dahlin and perhaps others. Maybe it would sting to see Ristolainen transition into being an offensive specialist and second-pairing defenseman at $5.4 million, but sometimes winning means acknowledging reality, even if it’s painful.

Others aren’t knocking down the door

This isn’t just about Ristolainen.

Zach Bogosian (19:53 per game) isn’t at the point in his career where he’s likely to be worth trotting out for two more minutes per contest than Dahlin, and his shaky numbers bolster that thought. Jake McCabe (18:54 TOI average) has been solid enough at times, but I’m not so sure I’d trot him out more often than Dahlin, even at this early point. Maybe you’d want Marco Scandella (19:44) to absorb some of the tougher assignments merely to protect Dahlin’s confidence, but the Swede’s possession stats are vastly superior to the four other defensemen mentioned in this post.

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It’s not like giving Dahlin more opportunities would be a mistake Housley couldn’t walk back.

Dahlin likely deserves more ice time in all three scenarios, but particularly at even-strength and on the power play. Instead, Left Wing Lock lists him on Buffalo’s third pairing and second PP unit.

On the bright side, Dahlin seems like he’s acing his early tests as the top pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, even if his work has been more subtle, rather than providing eye-popping early stats. He’s not inspiring ridiculous comparisons yet, like fellow Swede Elias Pettersson.

The thing is, Dahlin might be capable of much more, despite being wet-behind-the-ears. The Sabres would be wise to find out what he can handle, as moving Dahlin up the chain could make a big difference in moving up the ladder as a team.

At minimum, they might need to realize that he’s already the superior Rasmus.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.