BUFFALO, N.Y. — Last season didn’t sit well with Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
Unaccustomed to losing and no longer a rookie, Dahlin told The Associated Press on Thursday he feels better prepared and is far more driven to help transform the Sabres into contenders.
”I’m putting more pressure on myself. We’re going to be a winning team and be in the playoffs,” Dahlin said. ”I think everyone is putting more pressure on ourselves now, and we’re ready to go.”
The first player selected in the 2018 draft is so eager to put last year behind him, he was among the first Sabres players to hit the ice at the team’s practice facility, some three weeks before teams open training camp. He arrived in Buffalo from his native Sweden on Tuesday, and would have been back in town a few days earlier if not for travel complications.
The rookie of the year finalist is motivated after how Buffalo unraveled immediately following a 10-game winning streak that had the team briefly sitting first in the overall standings at the end of November. The Sabres then won just 16 of their final 57 games to miss the playoffs for an eighth straight season, the NHL’s longest active drought.
”We played so well in the beginning of the season, so that made you frustrated because we know how good we can play,” he said. ”Yeah, we’re going to get something good going on here.”
Expressing unhappiness and acknowledging frustration is new for Dahlin, who spent much of last year looking mostly at the bright side. When asked late last season if Buffalo’s 49 losses (including overtime and shootouts) were the most he ever endured in one year, Dahlin smiled and responded by saying the team’s 33 wins were also a season-high for him.
A year ago, Dahlin was expressing hope he’d simply make the season-opening roster. Now he’s begun to find his voice as a key member of the team.
”I feel more prepared. I feel more mature,” said Dahlin, who turned 19 in April. ”Like that one year of experience, I know what’s coming this season. I feel more comfortable in my position.”
He said he spent much of the summer adding weight and strength to better handle the rigors of an 82-game schedule and face elite opposition.
Dahlin’s rookie season mirrored much of that of his team when it came to inconsistency. He had a goal and eight assists during the 10-game win streak, but followed with two goals and four assist over his next 17 games.
Though he led Sabres defenseman and finished third among NHL rookies with 44 points (nine goals, 35 assists), he closed the season with a goal and six assists in Buffalo’s final 19 games.
Dahlin showed some rust Thursday, when the usually smooth-skating player took a spill – ”Oh, yeah, I slipped,” he said – while being untouched at the blue line. He bounced back a few moments later, when he drove in from the right point and converted Jason Pominville’s no-look pass for a goal.
Declaring himself ready to go, Dahlin already had his first face-to-face meeting with new coach Ralph Krueger on Wednesday.
”He seems like a really good coach and a good man,” he said of Krueger, who takes over after Phil Housley was fired following two sub-par seasons.
Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.
No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.
Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.
With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.
These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.
Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers
It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”
The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).
They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.
What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.
Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.
His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.
He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.
At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.
There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.
It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.
Other than that, things are pretty good.
If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.
Really, really, really good.
Championship contending good.
The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.
But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.
The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).
Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.
Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.
Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.
Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.
No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.
Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.
Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets
He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.
It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.
Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.
Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?
Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).
The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.
Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.
Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres
This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.
The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.
Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I dolike it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.
But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?
The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.
Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.
This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.
The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
The NHL’s top rookie has been honored since 1936 when Frank Calder, president of the NHL, began purchasing a trophy that was to be handed out to the top rookie every year. Following Calder’s death in 1943 the league began presenting the Calder Trophy in his memory.
The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
The case for Pettersson: He was not only an impact player from the moment he arrived in the NHL, but also a constant highlight reel for the Canucks. He finished the regular season with the most goals (28) and points (66) among all rookies even though he missed 11 games due to injury. No other rookie in the NHL finished the season with more than 22 goals or 45 points. He was so far ahead of the pack offensively that the gap between him and the second-leading rookie scorer, Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk, was the same as the gap between Tkachuk and the 17th leading rookie scorer (Minnesota’s Jordan Greenway.) He also had multiple five-point games during the season, something only five other rookies have done during the expansion era of the NHL. This is the second year in a row the Canucks will have a Calder Trophy finalist after Brock Boeser was the runner-up this past season.
The case for Binnington: Simply put, Binnington was a season-saver for the Blues along with new coach Craig Berube. When he made his first NHL start on Jan. 7 the Blues had one of the worst records in the NHL, had an unsettled goaltending situation that had been sinking their team through the first half of the season, and seemed to be a team that was simply going nowhere. All Binnington did that night was stop all 25 shots he faced in a 3-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Flyers and then never stopped winning. He finished the regular season with a 24-5-1 record and a .927 save percentage that was fourth among all NHL goalies that appeared in at least 30 games, trailing only Ben Bishop, Robin Lehner, and Jack Campbell. That performance helped the Blues not only make the playoffs, but also make a late run at the Central Division title. He has continued that strong play into the postseason where he has helped lead the Blues to a Round 2 matchup with the Dallas Stars.
The case for Dahlin: The No. 1 overall pick in 2018, Dahlin stepped right into the Sabres lineup and immediately became one of their go-to defenders as an 18-year-old. He had a huge year that saw him play more than 20 minutes per game and finish with 44 points, third among all rookies. The truly impressive thing about that point total is that only one other defender in the history of the league had a higher total during their age 18 season. Phil Housley, Dahlin’s coach during his rookie season, had 66 points during the 1982-83 season. If Dahlin wins the award he would be only the 12th defender to win it, and only the third since 1998 (Barrett Jackman, Tyler Myers, and Aaron Ekblad).
It has been a foregone conclusion for most of the season that Vancouver Canucks phenom Elias Pettersson is going to walk away with the Calder Trophy this season as the league’s rookie of the year. He has instantly transformed the Canucks’ lineup and at times been an unstoppable force when he is on the ice.
He is clearly the favorite and head and shoulders above the rest of the class.
Still, even with Pettersson’s dominance there are three other rookies in this class that are making a pretty strong push to at least make the discussion interesting.
Hart is a recent entry into the discussion, but he is making a pretty compelling case for himself with the way he has played since his mid-season call-up from the American Hockey League.
Not to overstate things, but he is probably the single biggest reason for optimism if you’re a Flyers fan because he at least has the potential — the potential! — to finally solve the long-standing problem in net. He has been a highly anticipated prospect ever since he joined the organization and his first look in the NHL has been everything even the most wildly optimistic Flyers fan could have hoped for it to be.
After backstopping the Flyers to a 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night, he is now up to a .922 save percentage in his first 13 appearances and is top-10 among the 65 goalies that have played in at least 10 games. His .924 even-strength mark is 16th out of that group. Yes, it’s a smal sample size but for a rookie goalie to jump right into the mess that has been the Flyers’ season and settle the position the way he has is extremely impressive.
It’s been a decade since a goalie last won the Calder (Steven Mason did it in 2009 for the Columbus Blue Jackets) but if Hart can maintain this momentum through the second half of the season he will at least give himself a chance to counted among the finalists.
Defenders typically have an uphill battle for this award as only four of them have won it since 1990. Still, two of the top contenders this season are defenders and the best of the bunch so far has been No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres.
After years of near-misses in the draft lottery the Sabres finally had the ping-pong balls go their way this past year and landed the potential No. 1 defender their rebuild has been lacking.
He is not only playing more than 20 minutes per night, he has been a positive possession driver (51 percent Corsi percentage) and showed superstar potential offensively. Entering play on Tuesday he has already recored 26 points in his first 48 games and is on track for around 45 points on the season.
As an 18-year-old.
In the history of the league only two defenders in their age 18 season have ever topped the 40-point mark. Phil Housley, Dahlin’s current head coach, had 66 during the 1982-83 season and Bobby Orr had 41 back in 1966-67.
As it stands right now his 26 points already the seventh-most all-time for an 18-year-old defender.
Then we have Heiskanen, who has probably been one of the few bright spots in what has become a tumultuous season for the Stars.
Given all of the injuries on the Stars’ blue line this season (John Klingberg has missed time, as has Marc Methot and Stephen Johns) they have thrown their prized rookie right into the deep end of the pool and asked him to play more than 23 minutes per night. That is three more minutes per game than Dahlin, and a workload that is almost unheard of for a rookie. Since the start of the 2005-06 season only seven rookies that have played in at least 45 games averaged more ice time per game. Five of those seven were age 22 or older in their rookie seasons.
Heiskanen is still only 19 years old.
To his credit, he has not looked at all out of place in that role. He already has 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 49 games while the Stars have been on the positive side of the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance differentials with him on the ice (via Natural Stat Trick).
The Stars have their flaws, and they haven’t always drafted well in recent years, but with Klingberg and Heiskanen they at least have the makings of a dominant duo on defense for the next decade.