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Rasmus Dahlin and playing the offhand side
Don Granato is occasionally deploying his top defenseman a little different than previous coaches
I guess it’s about time I take a deeper look at what’s going on with the Buffalo Sabres, right? After all, they’ve won a game more recently than those has-been Buffalo Bills and are now the toast of the town.
I hope you’re sensing sarcasm there because I’m laying it on really thick even though it’s a fact that cannot be disputed or argued. Being technically correct is the best kind of correct especially when you’re super pedantic.
ANYWAY… Let’s have a look at what Don Granato is doing with Rasmus Dahlin because I’ve noticed he’s done something differently on occasion while he’s been paired with Will Butcher.
Dahlin and Butcher are both left-handed shots which means someone at some point is playing on their offhand side. In previous years under coaches Ralph Krueger (I can hear you booing - let it all out), Phil Housley, and Dan Bylsma they all made it a point to virtually guarantee they would have lefthanded defensemen play the left side and righthanded defensemen on the right. It makes sense because it makes picking up the puck easier by the boards and coaches usually don’t want their defensemen getting too creative in the offensive zone. Coaches desire for defensemen to play defense usually supersedes the wont for offense from guys they demand protect the lead rather than try to pad it. It’s safer that way after all.
During the Sabres 2-1 shootout win against Arizona, Granato exclusively played Dahlin on the left and Butcher on the right on faceoffs in all zones as well as during on-the-fly changes. What’s more interesting is that it worked out very well.
Thanks to Chad DeDominicis at Expected Buffalo (do subscribe to their Patreon, it’s smart and worth it) I checked out the period-by-period results in particular for shot generation and suppression at five-on-five (ya know, CORSI). In the first two periods Dahlin was a minus-five CORSI and Butcher was a minus-three. But after they switched up sides in the third, things changed immensely. Dahlin was plus-seven and Butcher was plus-six in the final 20 minutes. While it didn’t change the score of the game, it did help Buffalo get pucks at the net.
The flipside of that is it was a lot of shots for shot sake as the expected goals (shot type, distance, and location factor into how that’s computed) were worse in the third than they were in the first two periods by a pretty good amount. Then again, if you’re owning possession of the puck and preventing the opponent from getting shots you’re doing your job.
Putting Dahlin on the right side stuck out to me because we haven’t seen it happen much, if at all, during his first three seasons. What’s even funnier about that is playing the right side is something he had a lot of success with in his final season at Frolunda. Take a look at this highlight reel from the 2017-2018 season, his draft year.
Dahlin was a threat all over the ice and not just from the defensive position. That he had a couple of wraparound goals is something else. But seeing him able to carry the puck and create passes and get good looks with shots from his offhand side makes you wonder why the heck we didn’t see this at all before in Buffalo.
(Looks at previous three seasons results)
During the Vancouver game, Dahlin again appeared on the right side but he was deployed mostly on the left side on faceoffs and through the flow of play. I tracked where he started on defense for all draws he was on ice for to see if there was any particular zone or faceoff location which it occurred.
4/5 draws at left defense (two neutral zone, one offensive, one defensive)
His one right defense deployment came in the offensive zone on a draw at the right circle meaning he was by the boards and not in the slot. That particular alignment happened regularly in which defensemen swapped their normal sides in either the offensive or defensive zone. Whether that’s for anticipated board battles or for ease of getting into a better position with the puck for a winning faceoff I’m not smart enough to know better. If you’re a hockey coach and reading this, comments are VERY welcome on this.
Starting off on the left side didn’t mean staying there as on three different occasions Dahlin and Butcher either swapped sides after a draw or flipped sides when they changed on the fly. One of those swaps occurred when they were down 2-1 late in the period and in the offensive zone. The Sabres ended the first down 2-1.
2/3 draws at left defense (two offensive zone, one neutral zone)
Dahlin missed a chunk of the second period after he took a puck in the mouth and went to the room to get stitches. His two offensive zone draws came during Tanner Pearson’s double-minor for high-sticking with 6:31 to play in the period. Dahlin is on the first power play unit and he’s also the only defenseman on it. His job is to coordinate up high in the 1-3-1 set up and facilitate action and shoot it when the time is right. That puts the onus on making sure he’s in the right position. Each draw did that as he was in the right defense position on a faceoff from the left circle with 4:19 to play in the period and at the left position on a right circle faceoff with 3:55 to go. We’ll set these aside as business as usual and not looking for an extra offensive boost.
9/11 draws at left defense (four neutral zone, two offensive zone, three defensive zone)
The results of tracking the third didn’t tip off very much.
His two appearances as a right defensemen came after the Sabres took a 4-2 lead in the first four minutes of the period. One came on a right circle draw in the offensive zone at 9:10. The other came on a defensive zone draw at the right circle with 3:19 to play and the Canucks playing 6-on-5 with the goalie pulled. At those points in the game it’s about being smart on coverage and not giving the Canucks a chance to get back into the game.
In the end the Sabres won 5-2 after an empty net goal from Rasmus Asplund and there was much rejoicing.
In the end
Seeing Dahlin get shifted from side to side is fascinating to me because it opens up more possibilities for him to have success, especially given his success playing that side in Sweden. This season has a lot of aims for the Sabres, but getting Dahlin to be the guy they expect him to be after taking him first in 2018 should be at the top of the list. With Henri Jokiharju out for a while with a lower-body injury, this offers an opportunity to get a longer look at doing this. Questions are: will we see more of it, was it a passing fancy in a tight game never to be seen again, or is it something to pull out of the bag to give a boost to the offense when they’re looking for a spark?