We’re now two months into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to continue our new feature: The PHR Panel. Our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments.
To catch up on the previous edition, click here.
Today, with the 2020 draft still not set in stone, we take a look at how some top picks are performing a few years into their careers.
Q: Who will end up being the best player from the 2018 draft?
Brian La Rose:
Back in 2018, the answer was Rasmus Dahlin. Nearly two years later, I don’t think that answer has changed.
While the Sabres have continued to struggle even with Dahlin in the fold, it certainly hasn’t been because of him. He had a lot thrown at him during his rookie season, perhaps too much for an 18-year-old defenseman. Despite that, he still did quite well. He was even better this season and was on pace to set new career-highs in points in spite of a dip in playing time if it wasn’t for a concussion and a minor upper-body issue that cost him ten games combined.
Defensively, Dahlin is still a little shaky at times but that’s par for the course for a young blueliner. He has made considerable improvements over his first two years and that should continue as he plays more and gets stronger.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure he’ll be the top offensive defender from this class but Dahlin’s all-around game will be enough to put him ahead of Quinn Hughes in terms of value. There will be some quality scorers from the 2018 draft (there already are) but they won’t be able to impact the game like a franchise defender that should consistently log over 25 minutes a night in his prime. Buffalo picking Dahlin back in June of 2018 signaled that they felt he was the best player in his draft class. There’s little reason to think otherwise at this point.
There are quite a few players that I like from this draft, but I’m going to go with the belief that the Buffalo Sabres got it right. Yes, Dahlin may not be that flashy defenseman who immediately dominated the league like fellow young blueliners Cale Makar and Hughes. Yet Dahlin is exactly what the team needed and has filled a major role in the two years he’s been in the league.
While his numbers look rather pedestrian through two seasons with 84 combined points, considering his status as the first-overall pick in 2018, those are actually impressive numbers for a teenaged blueliner. While they hardly compare to the first two seasons that Phil Housley had with Buffalo (he had 143 points), the league was quite different back in the early 80s with more goal scoring. In fact, the Sabres average more than one fewer goal per game now than they did back then, suggesting that Dahlin is much more comparable.
Now 20 years old, Dahlin is getting close to hitting his prime and should eventually have that breakout year to prove that he’s the best player in this draft. The blueliner has proven to be solid defensively and has good offensive skills, both of which should only get better. He will be a great player for years to come. We just might have to wait a little longer to see that play out.
The 2018 draft class has yet to produce enough players with considerable NHL experience to truly make an educated guess on this question. Many, like college standouts Scott Perunovich (STL) and Tyler Madden (LAK), have yet to even debut, while some top picks like Oliver Wahlstrom (NYI) and Evan Bouchard (EDM) have only played in a handful of games. I like all four of these players to have good NHL careers, but I simply don’t have the sample size I need to say that any could be the best player of the class.
For now, I still consider the players that I personally felt were the top four players in the 2018 class to be the leading contenders to have the best NHL career: Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov, Buffalo’s Dahlin, Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk, and Vancouver’s Hughes (I had Wahlstrom at No. 5). Even in the midst of Dahlin mania back in June 2018, I felt Svechnikov was a special talent and a dynamic presence that was deserving of being the top overall pick. That’s why I listed him first and will stick with him as the player that I feel has the best chance to be the top player in his class. Dahlin, Tkachuk, and especially Hughes have certainly shown that they can be elite players and difference-makers for their respective franchises, but I feel that Svechnikov will outplay and outlast the field.
Svechnikov, who leads the 2018 class in goals, points, and games played, has already asserted himself as a franchise centerpiece for the Hurricanes. He has the natural offensive instincts as well as the willingness to play physically and win puck battles to be a scoring threat and key presence on offense for a long time still to come. I do not see Svechnikov’s offense drying up; in fact, his growth from year one to year two shows me that he is absolutely still on the rise and his near point-per-game pace this season is just the beginning of his offensive upside and I feel he will have staying power among the NHL’s elite once he arrives. I see Alex Ovechkin as the ceiling for Svechnikov, which would certainly give him a good chance at the title of best player in the 2018 class, both in ability and longevity.
While I may not quite be on the same level as Zach when it comes to Svechnikov—what a comparable!—I too had him ranked as the best player in 2018 over Dahlin. There’s simply nothing that Svechnikov can’t do offensively. I was actually surprised he didn’t have a better rookie season, but the Hurricanes brought him along slowly with severely limited even-strength minutes and often only had him on the second powerplay unit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when the team let him loose this season you started to see what Svechnikov is truly capable of.
No, it’s not all lacrosse goals and nifty dangles. The 6’2″ forward is a force when he gets to full speed, and can seemingly still make crisp passes with a defender hanging onto his back. He was on a 73-point pace this season while still averaging fewer than 14 minutes of even-strength ice time. When 16:44 (total) per game starts creeping close to 20:00, watch out for a player who one day may legitimately contend for both the Rocket Richard and Art Ross (remember, he only just turned 20).
There are some outstanding players in the field, but I’ll still put my money on the big Russian.