Every few years the team with the top pick in the NHL Draft is rewarded with a can't-miss, no-brainer franchise player. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, and so on.
Yes, an Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan has been sprinkled in here and there, but for the most part forward prodigies taken first overall live up to the hype.
This is not the case with defensemen. Outside of Denis Potvin, who was drafted practically half a century ago, it's an underwhelming list. There are some solid, even very good, defensemen here. However, nobody comfortably fits the mold of franchise defenseman (we'll see on Aaron Ekblad).
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There are a number of reasons why teams have a difficult time identifying elite defensemen at the draft, and it shows both in the reluctance to take them first overall as well as in the aforementioned lack of success with the pick. In that context, it is remarkable how defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the assumed top pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, is so confidently portrayed as the cornerstone of whichever team lands him.
The distinction is not unearned, though. Dahlin has been favorably compared to both Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman. Statistically, he stacks up incredibly well.
Dahlin's production this season is better than Hedman's was in his pre-draft year. It's particularly notable with further context. Hedman's team, MODO, was one of the top offensive squads in Sweden at the time and featured a number of dynamic offensive forwards such as Mats Zuccarello.
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Dahlin's Frolunda, meanwhile, is relatively average offensively and lacks high-end scoring talent. To summarize, Rasmus Dahlin is producing better than Victor Hedman did in his pre-draft season despite being younger and playing with worse players.
Now, let's compare Dahlin's numbers to Karlsson's in the J20 SuperElit, the top junior league in Sweden.
Let's be clear about what this chart shows. Karlsson played in the league as a 17-year-old during his pre-draft season. Dahlin played in the league last year, when he was 16 and two years removed from the draft. Erik Karlsson is far and away the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, and Dahlin more or less matched his production, including a better goal scoring rate, despite being a full year younger.
It's not difficult to see how Dahlin puts up those numbers, nor is it hard to figure out why Frolunda trusts him with first-pairing minutes as a 17-year-old. No, he isn't a behemoth like Hedman, but at 6-2 and 183 pounds, with room for growth, he has the size and strength to handle grown men in a way Karlsson couldn't at the same age.
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The worst thing to say about Dahlin's defensive game is that he isn't perfect — which is true of any athlete in any sport. But his defensive ability is well beyond his years. His understanding of gap control and defensive coverages is will beyond his years. His skating ability is as good as anyone's, and while Hedman has great straight-line speed, Dahlin displays agility and puck poise that Hedman could have only wished to possess at the same age.
Dahlin has the uncanny ability to make plays by himself in seemingly innocent situations.
There are no flaws to his game. At an age where virtually every other top defensive prospect is still awkwardly figuring things out at a lower level, Dahlin is one of the top defensemen in arguably the second-toughest league in the entire world.
It's no wonder, then, that Sweden has selected Dahlin to be a part of its Olympic squad. The Swedes play their first game Thursday (2:40 a.m. ET). No, NHLers are not participating in the tournament. Still, teams are loaded with the best Europe-based players, and there will be no place to hide or shelter him. Adding an Olympic medal before his 18th birthday would be one of numerous accolades Dahlin will surely pick up over the course of his hockey career.
It can be uncomfortable to thrust such enormous expectations on a teenager. It is particularly hazardous in the case of defensemen, given the difficulty in projecting their futures.
In Dahlin's case, though, there is no match for what he has done at such a young age, and all evidence indicates he will be the type of player who can single-handedly change the outlook for whatever NHL franchise lands the top pick in this upcoming summer's draft