Whenever the Buffalo Sabres practiced, it was clear Phil Housley was lacking a Phil Housley. The coach was the best passer on the ice. He'd run a drill and hit players' tape. The players would follow and miss.
The NHL Draft should change that.
Although there are holes at wing and goaltender, arguably the biggest missing piece for Buffalo was a quarterback on defense. Housley's system needs defensemen who can get the puck to the forwards, and he didn't have them.
Rasmus Dahlin has all the tools. After the Sabres won the NHL Draft lottery, the tools will be on their way.
"You look at what Phil is trying to create with our defense corps of trying to get up in the play," General Manager Jason Botterill said. "It's certainly something that we have to do a better job of getting the puck up to our forwards and just trying to create more offensive opportunities. He certainly fits the bill."
Botterill won't publicly commit to selecting Dahlin with the No. 1 pick June 22 in Dallas, but the assumption going forward is the 18-year-old Swede will hear his named called by Buffalo.
"It's great that we got the No. 1 overall pick, but now it's up to us to develop him," Botterill said. "He is 18 years old. For him to achieve all his potential, we have to put him in the right environments and make sure that we help him with that process."
Dahlin's potential seems unlimited. The 6-foot-2, 181-pounder has been compared to NHL All-Stars Erik Karlsson of Ottawa and Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay. Nick Lidstrom, in the running with Bobby Orr for best defenseman ever, said Dahlin is better than he was at the same age and likened him to Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch.
“He’s good at everything,” Hakan Andersson, the Detroit Red Wings' director of European scouting, told the Detroit Free Press. “He has great size. He is a great skater. He has very good hands. He’s extremely smart, and he has very high dedication.
"He has no weaknesses."
Dahlin also will have the best offensive defenseman in U.S. hockey history to coach him. They have the opportunity to make each other look better.
"I've really enjoyed working with Phil Housley over the past year," Botterill said. "I'm very excited about the type of team that he wants to try to create and the system that he's trying to install.
"Although there is some disappointing elements this past year of us not having the record we want, you have young players that you can mold. It's not as if we have a lot of players who are at the end of their careers. We have a lot of young players that we can mold. It's the same thing with this young player that we're going to bring into our organization."
As the Sabres have learned, one player won't transform the club from cellar-dweller to Stanley Cup contender. Dahlin will still be a rookie. Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad went first overall in 2014, and he started with 12 goals, 27 assists and 39 points in 81 games. Those are not franchise-altering numbers, but they are definitely nice.
"There's actually quite a few guys at the top of the draft that could certainly have the opportunity to step in right away," Botterill said. "You just look at players nowadays, I know it's cliché but it is a young man's league. These players now come having skill coaches, strength coaches. At such a young age, I think they're very mature whether it's 18 or 19 stepping into the National Hockey League."
Dahlin is a left-handed shot who can play on both sides. Assuming he plays on the left, he will join Marco Scandella, Brendan Guhle, Jake McCabe and Nathan Beaulieu. The right side features Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. Casey Nelson is an unrestricted free agent and Victor Antipin is a restricted free agent.
Possible pairings could feature Dahlin-Ristolainen (Rasmuses? Rasmi? The defense firm of Rasmus & Rasmus?), Scandella-Bogosian and some combination of Guhle, McCabe and Nelson. Provided they stay healthy and achieve their potential, Housley should have guys who can carry out his game plan.
He also may have defensemen who can give him a run at being the best passer on the ice during practice.