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Denis Potvin on Rasmus Dahlin: 'Make sure the young man plays defense first'

There have been 11 defensemen drafted No. 1 overall since the Buffalo Sabres entered the NHL in 1970, and the Blue and Gold will make it 12 when they take Rasmus Dahlin Friday in Dallas.

Five of the 11 played at least 1,000 NHL games but four of those names – Chris Phillips, Ed Jovanovski, Roman Hamrlik and Rob Ramage – hardly rate as superstars.

The fifth name surely is. And he's the one Dahlin's situation has been most compared to.

Hall of Famer Denis Potvin, the captain of the four-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, was taken first overall 45 years ago in the 1973 draft from the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67s. Scouts around hockey universally say Dahlin is the best defense prospect who will go No. 1 in the draft since Potvin.

Potvin had 1,052 points in 1,060 games in a career that spanned from 1973-1988. He won the 1974 Calder Trophy, was a three-time Norris Trophy recipient, was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991 and named to the NHL 100 in 2017.

In a recent interview with The Buffalo News, Potvin said he thinks the Sabres can take a big step forward adding Dahlin as a key member of their core.

"I think that most people think if you can draft a defenseman, it's a great way to start really rolling forward," Potvin said by phone from his Quebec summer home. "If he's a No. 1 draft pick and the only player you really have, that's one thing. But Buffalo already has some pretty good players, particularly Jack Eichel. So already, they're a little bit of a step ahead to be adding the No. 1 pick and that's so important."

Potvin, now a broadcaster for the Florida Panthers, became the first defenseman in NHL history to crack 1,000 points. When he retired, he had surpassed Bobby Orr and was the league's all-time leader for defensemen in goals (310), assists (742) and points.

Potvin is now seventh on the all-time list for points from the blue line, passed by a group led by Ray Bourque (1,579) and Paul Coffey (1,531) and one that also includes former Sabres standout and current Buffalo coach Phil Housley (1,232). He's now fifth in goals, 28 behind Housley's total of 338.

Potvin, now 64, has long credited the tutelage of legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour for being the key to his career. He said Dahlin stands to benefit from Housley if the Buffalo coach can get through to his prize rookie about a defense-first mentality.

"I know the great career Phil had as a player, the fantastic skating abilty he had and the way he was able to put up points so consistently," Potvin said. "I just sure hope his focus is to make sure the young man plays defense first. And that will take teaching, I don't care where he comes from.

"I had every scoring record in junior hockey and I got to my first training camp and I don't think I was barely allowed to go above center ice for the first little while. Al Arbour simply saw it that, 'Let's make sure being a sound defensive defenseman comes first and if you're in a good position defensively, you'll be in a good position offensively.' He used to drill that into me. Coaching will be important. You can't just let the kid ride because he'll make mistakes that I think will be difficult to recover from."

That's especially true, considering how Dahlin's play will be under heavy scrutiny in today's media environment. That wasn't the case in '73, when Potvin's Islanders played in the shadow of the New York Rangers.

"I never had that kind of pressure from the outside. I put so much on myself I didn't need to take much from the outside," Potvin said. "But I was in a very unique spot because my brother, Jean, was there and having him on the team was a great leveling factor for me. My brother and I had a great relationship as brothers and friends and it really helped me. And I got there and Billy Harris was already the first overall pick from the year before and he had 28 goals his rookie season."

Potvin had 17 goals and 37 assists as a rookie in 1973-74 as the Islanders missed the playoffs. He had 21 goals and 55 assists in 1974-75 as the Isles advanced all the way to Game 7 of the semifinals in just their third season of existence, falling one win short of meeeting the Sabres in the Cup final. He then exploded in the next four years, averaging 29 goals and 93 points. The Islanders won their Cups from 1980-83.

"The drafting has to be very good. You can't just pat yourself on the back after getting a franchise-type player like what we expect Buffalo is going to get," Potvin said. "You've got to be able to have a guy that can play with him who's been around. I had veteran guys when I started with the Islanders. The proper drafting and the assembling of the team and the support system doesn't stop just when you pick the franchise player."

In Florida, Potvin has watched 2014 No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad mature both on and off the ice. Ekblad lived with veteran Willie Mitchell his rookie year and also had former Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell as an on-ice tutor. When he was a rookie, Potvin lived around the corner from his brother and sister-in-law.

"You have to remember that maybe these guys have never made a bank deposit in their lives or paid a utility bill," he said. "It was great to have my brother around the corner. I think about Sidney Crosby living with Mario Lemieux at the start of his career. It's done a lot and I think that's a very good model for Dahlin that management will think about."

Potvin, who had a 101-point season in 1978-79, said changes in the game will prevent defensemen from putting up those kind of numbers now. Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner from 1991-2012 whom Dahlin idolizes, had only one season over 20 goals and one other over 80 points.

"In '90s expansion, you got a lot of guys who could play defensive hockey," Potvin said. "You think of the Panthers, they were very defensive oriented. The game became a lot of left-wing lock, back pressure and trap. It benefited teams not expecting to score a lot of goals. The only other option was to prevent them, and scoring went very much down for defensemen.

"There's so much more coaching push now to involving minimum four players to the attack. Aaron Ekblad will move in more, will be involved a lot more on the power play. You see the emergence of John Carlson in Washington. I think we're going to get more push for offense from the back line again. Especially with guys like Dahlin coming into the league."

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