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.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck