I want to share a secret before you read the descriptions and conclusions that I have made on Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres and Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars. As I was scouting these two highly skilled young defensemen, I began to imagine they were both eligible in the same draft. I am the GM of the NHL team with the first pick. My primary objective is to determine which of the two players the team with the second pick prefers. I would then try to make a deal with that team so that I would “pass” on picking their preferred player. In exchange, I would be able to acquire a valuable asset, either a player or another draft pick. My reasoning is simple – I love both Dahlin and Heiskanen. They are two of the most poised defensemen ever to play as teenagers in the NHL, and each will fill the No. 1 role on their NHL team for many years. Bearing this secret in mind, let’s take a closer look at two young stars.
Miro Heiskanen was the third overall pick in 2017 from HIFK in the Finnish Liiga. After completing one more season in Finland, he came to Dallas for 2018-19. He established himself immediately as a top-four defenseman at 19, played all 82 games and was selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game. He averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time per game in the regular season, and that increased to more than 25 minutes per game in the playoffs. Rasmus Dahlin is nine months younger than Heiskanen. He was the first overall pick in 2018 from Frolunda in Sweden and came directly to Buffalo. He established himself immediately as a top-four defenseman and also played in all 82 games. Dahlin averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time per game. Both players had previously impressed NHL scouts with their elite-level performances at the world under-18s and world juniors.
In the case of both of these blueliners, their rookie seasons only formed the starting points for their careers. This year, both Heiskanen and Dahlin will be asked to play on the top defensive pair against top opposition forwards and be on the first power-play and penalty-killing units. Both of them will be asked to play big minutes on a nightly basis. They will be given the chance to assume the roles of elite NHL defensemen.
No player can hope to rise to the elite level in today’s NHL without top-flight skating ability. Dahlin and Heiskanen pass this test easily. Both of them are smooth, effortless skaters who are exceptionally light on their feet. Both have excellent backward agility and pivoting. Dahlin is very good in acceleration and has above-average forward speed. Heiskanen is already at the elite level in both these categories. By the end of the playoffs, I believed his ability to skate the puck out of danger all the way to the offensive zone was as good as any blueliner’s in the NHL.
Heiskanen received rave reviews for his performance during the playoffs. He was used extensively in all situations and often played against top opposition forwards, including in overtime. He showed skating ability, puck skills and poise. He was also manhandled and knocked off the puck on numerous occasions. This was glossed over because of his age and inexperience. Heiskanen will not be granted this slack in the future. Dahlin was in a much different situation than Heiskanen. Dallas employed a disciplined defensive system and was second in the NHL in goals against. I watched a number of Buffalo games. I really have no idea what their defensive scheme was. Dahlin handled himself well as an 18-year-old coming into this situation. With his skating ability, he was hard to beat on the rush, and he showed some bite in 1-on-1 situations. He maintained his poise even when things looked hopeless for the Sabres.
In 2018-19, Dahlin had 44 points compared to 33 by Heiskanen. However, we should take a closer look at that point differential. Dahlin was regularly used on the first-power play unit of a non-playoff team. Dallas had a stronger, veteran team. Heiskanen was on the Stars’ second power-play unit. Dahlin outscored Heiskanen on the power play by a margin of 20-8. In non-power-play situations, Heiskanen actually outscored Dahlin 25-24. Their usual scoring methods are different. Dahlin has a more common approach for a good offensive D-man. He makes plays from the point and has a strong shot. Heiskanen’s shot is not nearly as strong as that of Dahlin. His points are more likely to come from converting passes after he has moved in from the blueline or from joining the rush and converting a pass as the trailer on the play.
ROOM FOR DEVELOPMENT
What Dahlin and Heiskanen showed in their rookie seasons was remarkable. They are already playing at a level equal to the top group of defensemen in the NHL. The question to be determined is how much improvement we are likely to see from them. Right now, they are both top-level skaters, with Heiskanen having an edge in speed and acceleration. Both have good puck skills and sense, with Dahlin being the better shooter. Now, let’s take a look at their bodies. Dahlin has a bigger and heavier frame at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. Heiskanen is more compact at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. Heiskanen is nine months older. Dahlin is more likely to gain actual physical strength and power. If he does, look out. Right now, his physical power is adequate. If his body develops further, Dahlin could become a defensive stud on top of everything else.
Let’s return to our secret. If necessary, I will ask the GM of the team with the second pick in the draft which of these two defensemen he prefers. I will take either of them and surrender the other in a heartbeat. That is how highly I think of both of them. But, like any trade, it takes two to tango. That other GM may share my thoughts. He might be so happy to get either player, he will not surrender any assets to ensure that he gets his choice. The choice then falls to me. I will take Rasmus Dahlin. If neither player develops beyond the level they are at right now, I believe their respective values as assets are close to equal. If Dahlin’s younger body does fill out, the additional physical power should make him a slightly more complete defenseman. Dahlin has not had the benefit of NHL coaching at the level Heiskanen has received. Even in a somewhat chaotic situation, Dahlin looked pretty good. In a more organized environment, he could look even better. I would be delighted to have Heiskanen but I would take Dahlin ahead of him in a photo finish.