While Bobby Orr was having a wild 71st birthday on Wednesday night, dancing on top of bar tables, throwing televisions out of hotel rooms and inciting riots in the posh Boston suburb of Weston (OK, none of that happened), Rasmus Dahlin was busy becoming the second-highest scoring 18-year-old defenseman in NHL history, passing Orr for the distinction with an assist on Casey Mittelstadt’s goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Since the Buffalo Sabres made Dahlin the first overall pick at the draft last June, he has not only emerged as one of the best young defensemen in the league, but he’s close to completing one of the best seasons by an 18-year-old blueliner in NHL history.
Just how good has Dahlin been? Already, he's among a small group of active defensemen to play regularly as 18-year-olds in the NHL. Aaron Ekblad, Noah Hanifin, Zach Bogosian, Jakob Chychrun, Luca Sbisa and Brent Burns are the only current NHLers who played 30-plus games as 18-year-old defenders, and Dahlin, who is on pace to play in all 82 games for Buffalo this season, stands apart from the pack when it comes to production. Of the group, Ekblad's offensive totals were closest to Dahlin’s current eight-goal, 39-point output, as the Florida Panthers defenseman recorded 24 points before he turned 19. Even if you adjust to include players who began the season as an 18-year-old but celebrated their 19th birthday during the campaign, Dahlin and Ekblad are tied for fourth, with Orr only two points ahead (Orr recorded three points in five games as a 19-year-old during his rookie season).
Dahlin isn’t done, either, with nine games remaining in Buffalo’s season and his current scoring rate putting him on pace to end the year with nine goals and 44 points. There’s little chance, though, that he’ll be able to set the record for scoring by an 18-year-old defenseman. In 1982-83, Phil Housley, Dahlin’s coach in Buffalo, recorded 57 points as an 18-year-old blueliner (and Housley added nine more points after his March 9 birthday to complete his rookie NHL campaign with 66 points).
The Sabres’ willingness to give Dahlin important minutes while allowing him to make mistakes is what has given him the opportunity to make such an impact as an 18-year-old. When you play in the same division as Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Brad Marchand, you’re going to have your work cut out for you. But Dahlin, always seen as a great skater who produced impressive offensive numbers at every level he has played, has made the necessary adjustments to succeed against bigger, faster and more skilled competition in the NHL. His transition to the NHL has been so impressive, in fact, that in most other years he would be the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy. Unfortunately for the Sabres youngster, Vancouver Canucks freshman Elias Pettersson is breaking records and carrying a team on his back, so Dahlin will have to settle for finishing as the runner-up.
That doesn’t mean there’s no hardware in his future, though. Dahlin was considered the top draft prospect in hockey last season for a reason, and he is going to become one of the NHL's leading blueliners in the very near future, competing with the likes of Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty for years to come. The Sabres need to continue building around him to give him opportunities to lead them to the playoffs, but in the meantime, Buffalo has to be excited with how successful Dahlin’s rookie season has been.