The player to whom Rasmus Dahlin has been most compared is Nicklas Lidstrom, known as the Perfect Human Being later in his career because it seemed he could do no wrong. When it came to the fantastic player-fantastic person combination, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone better.
Lidstrom was among the best defensemen in NHL history and played at a high level for 20 years before he retired in 2012. His Hall of Fame career included four Stanley Cup titles, seven Norris trophies, 11 All-Star games and the Conn Smythe Trophy after he led the Red Wings to the championship in 2002.
He was a terrific ambassador for both hockey and his homeland, the primary reason during 20-plus years of covering the NHL to one degree or another that I often wondered if there was a mean-spirited soul in all of Sweden. Lidstrom may not have been a perfect human being, but he was pretty darned close.
And could he ever play.
Lidstrom had 264 goals and 878 points over 1,564 games in the NHL. Plus-minus rating means little in a season or a game, but it's worth noting that Lidstrom was plus-450 for his career. He finished on the wrong side of the ledger in only one season while averaging nearly 27 minutes per game.
The Sabres already know they will have a terrific player in Dahlin, the undisputed top prospect who will be selected first overall in the upcoming NHL Draft barring total calamity or complete stupidity. Lidstrom, himself, said his younger countryman was better than he was at the same age, and it's tough to argue.
Dahlin celebrated his 18th birthday a few weeks ago having already completed a season in the Swedish Hockey League after participating in the 2018 Olympics. He wouldn't have been selected for the Olympic team if the NHL participated, but he proved at a young age that he could excel against men.
He plays with the composure rarely seen among players his age and often missing in players twice his age. He's a terrific skater and a great puck-handler and passer. His instincts are off the charts. Indeed, he's the rare impact player who can help turn around a Buffalo franchise in ruins.
If the anti-tank and pro-tank crowds were equally wrong on something, it was estimating the time and talent needed to recover. Neither believed the Sabres would be this bad at this stage. Terry Pegula, while announcing a freeze on ticket prices for next season, stopped just short of admitting his strategy was a mistake.
Like him, I'm not here to rehash all that has gone wrong with the Sabres. But it's important to rehash all that was right about Detroit during Lidstrom's career before expecting similar results in Buffalo. Lidstrom was 21 years old when he joined a team in 1991-92 that lost in the conference finals twice after reaching the playoffs four times in five years.
It took years for him in particular and the Red Wings in general to evolve from very good to great. He played four seasons before making his first All-Star appearance and nine years before he was named the NHL's best defenseman. He was in his sixth season when he won his first Cup, which came after four years under Scotty Bowman.
Steve Yzerman played 14 seasons before winning a Cup. Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov were in their primes. Detroit had seven future Hall of Fame players on back-to-back Cup winners, plus a Hall of Fame coach in Bowman. Five years later, when they won another title, they had nine Hall of Famers after adding Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Chris Chelios.
The list does not include Pavel Datsyuk, a former sixth-round pick who will be a candidate for the Hall when he's eligible. He was a 23-year-old rookie who evolved into one of the best two-way centers of his time. Henrik Zetterberg came along the next season and won the Conn Smythe after Detroit won the Cup in 2008.
Lidstrom was fortunate to blossom under great coaching and experienced leaders before he was in position to help players after him. People forget about the likes of Brian Rafalski, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Kronwall and others who took pressure off Lidstrom while he, in turn, made them better.
Buffalo hasn't had a player finish the season with a plus-20 rating or better since 2006-07, which marked the last time the Sabres won a playoff series. Lidstrom's career average was better than plus-22, in large part because he played for great teams and great coaches.
And that's the point.
The Red Wings built a winning culture and made the playoffs every year of Lidstrom's career. It became a destination for free agents and top coaches (see: Babcock, Mike) who were consummate professionals and obsessed with winning. For years, they adhered to a daily standard that was common among great teams.
Late owner Mike Ilitch never would have celebrated winning a draft lottery, as the Sabres did this year, after the Red Wings finished dead last in the NHL. He would have been humiliated.
Dahlin will start his NHL career in an unhealthy environment in Buffalo, a cesspool that contaminated its most principled leaders while missing the postseason for seven straight seasons. If the Sabres' hierarchy learned anything, it's that a single player changes very little. Even the best are only as good as the teammates around them.
Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the greatest player in NHL history. He won four Cups in five years with the Oilers, but he never won another one after he was traded in 1988. Two years later, however, Edmonton won one without him. Lidstrom would be the first to say his success came from his teammates, not the other way around.
Dahlin belongs in the conversation with Lidstrom when it comes to talent, certainly, but he doesn't stand a chance to make the same impact on the Sabres until they disinfect the organization of players whose primary concern is picking up a paycheck. Nobody should expect him to come to the rescue.
It will take time. If Lidstrom needed six years to win a Stanley Cup under ideal conditions, you can safely assume the path for Dahlin and the Sabres will be considerably longer.