Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Dahlineation of Buffalo's near-term defense

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-30-2018

As he did at the NHL Draft Lottery, Buffalo GM Jason Botterill will use plurals when talking about whom the Buffalo Sabres might select first-overall between now and the upcoming 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Botterill had a grin after winning the lottery on Saturday which comes from knowing exactly who the Sabres walk to the podium on June 22 in Dallas, Texas but one would have to thing that he was doing cartwheels inside. Make no mistake, though Botterill may generally mention other players when talking about that top pick in the draft, this draft lottery was all about the opportunity to draft a franchise defenseman named Rasmus Dahlin.

The 6'2" 183 lb. Dahlin has often been compared to the likes of Ottawa's Erik Karlsson and Detroit Red Wings Hall of Fame defenseman Niklas Lidstrom while some have even gone as far to say that he's the blueline version of Connor McDavid. All those lofty comparisons may or may not come to fruition, but anyone who thinks, writes or talks about Buffalo trading the pick or selecting another player at the draft has a wild imagination.

Red Wings director of European Scouting Hakan Andersson told the Detroit Free Press prior to the lottery. “I’ve seen him lots over the years. I know how dedicated [Dahlin] is. I know how hard he works. 
“He has no weaknesses.”

Yet he Andersson was still somewhat cautious when talking about Dahlin's future in the NHL. "People want to compare Dahlin to Lidstrom. Lidstrom in his draft year played in the junior Swedish hockey league. This guy played in the top league in his draft year and on the national team. That doesn’t mean it’s going to translate into a better career.

"It takes time. Dahlin is very good at a young age, for sure. He has taken some big steps the past few years. I think whoever drafts him, you hope you are drafting a world-class defenseman."

With Dahlin coming to the Sabres, and if all that's been said of him comes to fruition, the rest of Buffalo's blueline falls into place beginning this season. Sabres' bench boss Phil Housley has mobility and heft at his disposal right now along with some edginess and speed to go along with some older and younger vets. With Dahlin expected to be on the top-pairing from the get-go, he key d-man moving forward at this juncture might be 23 yr. old Rasmus Ristolainen, who was selected eighth overall by the Sabres at the 2013 draft.

Ristolainen is a towering blueliner from Finland who skating and skill and has been logging big minutes dating back to his time in the Finnish Elite League as a teenager. At the time of the draft, Ristolainen was considered the most NHL-ready d-man not named Seth Jones and he only spent a half-season in the AHL his rookie season. He, along with many other young players were sent to their respective developmental leagues as that 2013-14 edition of the Buffalo Sabres were heading south, all the way to the bottom of the league.

The following season began a run for Ristolainen where two Sabres coaches leaned heavily on him as a minute-eating, all-situations defenseman. He jumped from 20:37 of average ice-time his rookie season to 25:17 ATOI in 2015-16. He hit 26:28 in 2016-17 and last year Ristolainen averaged 26:30 of ice-time which was fourth in the league.

Former Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma and Housley had often talked preseason about cutting Ristolainen's minutes back into the lower 20's but every year they put the weight of the defense on his shoulders. It wore him down and there were times he'd go through a mid-season slump before finding his second wind. That should change with the addition of Dahlin and it could very well happen with the right-handed Ristolainen and left-handed Dahlin playing on the top pair for Buffalo.

In doing that, 28 year old Marco Scandella can fall back into a more comfortable role on the blueline.

Botterill traded for Scandella last off season with the thought that he might be able to make the jump to the top pairing with Ristolainen. The duo, like the team, had troubles early and mid-season Housley separated the two while evaluating for the future before putting them back together for much of the final portion of the season.

Scandella is a big, 6'3" 208 lb. all-around defenseman who skates well, who along with Ristolainen, anchored the Sabres top penalty kill unit while also seeing time on the Sabres second powerplay unit. Five on five Scandella did have problems on the first pairing vs. top-level competition and the addition of Dahlin means he'll be able to slide back down with the potential to be very effective on the second pairing.

Housley will have a number of options moving forward when it comes to the No. 4 defenseman this season. Right-handed Casey Nelson, a 25 yr. old rookie, played with the left-handed Scandella last season for a spurt and those two looked very solid as a d-pair. Nelson is a real good defender who skates well and gets his shot through from the point, something Housley had pointed out on numerous occasions last season.

Another option would be to pair Scandella with right-handed vet, Zach Bogosian. The hulking 6'3" 228 lb. Bogosian skates extremely well for a player his size and also has a bit of a mean streak in him. The problem with him, however, is avoiding injury, something he's been unable to do since early in his career. In January Bogosian underwent hip surgery which finished his season but with a 4-6 month recovery time, he should be ready for the season.

Two years ago Bogosian was paired with Eau Claire, Wisconsin native Jake McCabe and the duo looked good for the team in a second-pairing role. McCabe is a rugged, stand-'em-up-at-the-blueline d-man who's solid in his own zone. Although whatever offensive acumen he has within has remained somewhat dormant, McCabe has managed to contribute a little offensively and perhaps a drop-down to the third pairing might open things up a bit for him.

That's what the drafting of Dahlin will do for this defense moving forward. Should he be able to break into the league in a top-pairing role, everything else begins to fall into place. With him and Ristolainen up top, Housley can do right-left combinations down the lineup with players who've played well together.

Should the Sabres re-sign Nelson, and there's no reason to think they or he won't, a second-pairing of Scandella-Nelson is a definite possibility. And should that work well, the duo of Bogosian-McCabe could fall down to the third pairing which might be ideal for Bogosian's health and McCabe's further development.

Perhaps equally important is that Brendan Guhle can continue to develop in Rochester should the team feel he needs more seasoning. The very athletic, smooth-skating Guhle had looked impressive during his short stints in Buffalo and had a great first pro season playing for the Amerks. However, during the latter part of this first pro season in the AHL he faltered a bit and reports from the rink had him playing poorly in the playoffs.

If Guhle needs a season where he spends the majority of his time in Rochester, the addition of Dahlin coupled with the structure above allows that to happen and it allows a very thin prospect pool to slowly start flowing into Rochester as well.

As Botterill said after winning the draft lottery, Dahlin's "the type of defenseman that pretty much all 31 teams in the National Hockey League want these days," and that's just the player and how he plays. What he does for the organization's depth chart on defense is immeasurable as they now have the freedom to slot everyone correctly and make talent adjustments when necessary.

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