To get a view from outside Buffalo of Rasmus Dahlin and his expected selection at No. 1 by the Sabres in the NHL Draft, The Buffalo News enlisted Uffe Bodin, the editor in chief of Swedish website hockeysverige.se and editor of eliteprospects.com. He also does work for nhl.com and the Hockey News.
I remember it pretty vividly. It was the fall of 2015 when the phone rang and I heard an impatient voice stutter on the other side of the line: ”This kid … you have got to see this kid! He’s the best defenseman I ever seen at this age.”
The call came from a friend in the hockey business who had just seen Rasmus Dahlin perform for the first time in the renowned Swedish youth tournament ”TV-pucken” (in translation: the TV puck). As I’ve been covering hockey for a few years, I’ve gotten used to these calls, almost to the point where I became immune. Everyone is eager to find the next Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman or Filip Forsberg. As soon as there’s a new kid in town who’s exciting, someone will start a hype and create these enormous expectations that the poor guy will never be able to fulfill. That’s why I feel that you always have to be cautious in situations like that.
But this time, it was different.
I was sort of indifferent to this Dahlin hype to begin with, but the more I saw him play, the more amazed and convinced I became. There was clearly something to his game that I had not seen before, something very unique. Every time he got the puck, there was like a jolt of excitement going off in my belly. Like a premonition of greatness. That feeling has grown exponentially over these past few years leading up to the NHL Draft in Dallas, where he will be the first Swede chosen No. 1 since Mats Sundin in 1989.
These past two years, Dahlin has played among men in a very good league in Sweden. As a 16 and 17 year old, he has shown things that I quite honestly have never seen in a young defenseman before. Not in Karlsson, Hedman, Oliver Ekman Larsson or any of the great rearguards our country has produced. Heck, not even in any of the defensemen that has gone first overall in the NHL draft for the 25 or so years that I’ve been following the league as a fan or covering it as a writer. Just put Rasmus Dahlin as your search term on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. The way he dekes opposing players, controls the game with his patience and cool demeanor is just unheard of for a defenseman. I know I’m probably pouring gallons of gasoline on the hype by writing these words, but it’s an honest opinion. He’s by far the best defenseman I’ve ever seen at that age.
As a person, Dahlin is nothing like the spectacular player he is on the ice. The first few times I interviewed him, he came across as shy. I guess most normal 16 year olds would be when they’re suddenly thrust into the limelight. As time passed and Dahlin has become more aware of how to deal with the pressures of being hockey’s new poster boy in Sweden, he has impressed me with how cool, calm and collected he is off the ice.
During the Stanley Cup finalsm I had the privilege of spending a few hours in his company as he and the rest of this draft’s top prospects toured Washington and got to meet players and coaches from the Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. He took it all in stride and seemed to enjoy the moment despite constantly having microphones and cameras in his face. Every time the word pressure was uttered, he just shrug his shoulders and said: ”The things I can control are the things I will control. Everything that’s out of my hands I try not to worry too much about. There are so many other things to worry about.” It might sound like a cliché, but it seemed profound to me.
Rasmus Dahlin is a very humble kid with both feet securely placed on the ground. I’ve actually never heard him say anything remotely cocky or selfish. It’s almost to the point where he can be perceived as boring, but instead you can view it as something similar to what Connor McDavid is. He has toned down his personality in order go give everything he got on the ice. In the long run, it’s probably going to benefit both Dahlin and the Buffalo Sabres.
So, are the Sabres the perfect fit for the young Swede? Before the draft lottery in April, I wrote a column where I ranked my preferred destinations for Dahlin. And I’m really sorry Buffalo, but you were not one of them. I know you have one of the most devoted fan bases in the league and an owner who’s really passionate about the team and the sport. Sadly, these past few years have been a mess for your Sabres and my initial thought was that I would like Dahlin to be spared from that. But you won the golden ticket and here we are, so let’s make the best of this situation.
I think a lot of hockey people in Sweden, beside the Sabres fans obviously, shared this sentiment with me. We would probably like Dahlin to get an easier introduction to life in the NHL and not having to be the top defenseman on a team right away. There’s enough pressure being chosen first overall as it is. A lot of the other great Swedish defenseman who have been brought to the NHL have had a dependable partner to lean upon during their first year in the league. Whether it’s been Brad McCrimmon for Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, Mattias Ohlund for Victor Hedman in Tampa or Flip Kuba for Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. Someone to show them the ropes and help ease their way into the league.
The Sabres don’t have that guy for Dahlin right now, but hopefully that is something General Manager Jason Botterill will adress during the summer. I think it will be a key for Dahlin’s development to give him a chance to succeed right away. He’s coming to a team that likely won’t make the playoffs and that has a lot of work to do before they earn respect from the rest of the league.
I’m sure Dahlin will help the transition, going from worst to at least decent, but changing the culture of a team is not something one player can do by himself. A lot of people are going to have to help him down the line.
If we look on the bright side, there are a lot of intriguing pieces surrounding Dahlin on his future team in Buffalo. Jack Eichel is still coming into his own, Casey Mittelstadt has the skills to be a really good No. 2 center and coach Phil Housley has had great success developing defensemen before.
In due time, I’m sure Rasmus Dahlin will be a difference maker for the Sabres. It’s just a matter of the team giving him the conditions to be that sooner rather than later.