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Rasmus Dahlin keeps thoughts close before NHL Draft

DALLAS — If you want to know what it’s like to play against Rasmus Dahlin, just ask him some questions. You’ll get the idea fast.

He’ll look in your eyes and listen. He’ll nod. He’ll take in what you’re offering, and he’ll give something – but just a little – in return.

And then?

Whoosh!

He’s off, and onto the next one.

Ask Thursday for his thoughts on likely getting drafted by the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, he’ll tell you he’s just trying to have fun today. Ask him the best advice he’s ever received, he’ll tell you, “Be yourself.” Play off that and ask him what he wants fans to know about himself, and he’ll laugh lightly and say if you want to know something, “Just ask me.”

And it’s then that you realize Dahlin, the 18-year-old Swedish hockey prodigy, just skated circles around you.

Dahlin is the top-ranked player in the NHL Entry Draft, which begins here Friday. By winning the draft lottery in April, the Sabres get the first overall pick, and are almost certain to take Dahlin, widely regarded as the most promising young defenseman in a generation.

Dahlin and seven other top prospects spent Thursday making appearances in Dallas, chauffeured in a black limousine bus and escorted by the NHL’s public relations staff. Their day began at a community hockey rink in Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb just north of the city, where they participated in a youth hockey clinic hosted by the Dallas Stars.

Dahlin helped guide rotating groups of kids through a pairs drill, teaching them to roll off the ice, spring onto their skates, pass the puck and shoot on goal. Unlike the autograph seekers and media horde gathered on the other side of the glass, the kids on ice seemed unfazed by his star-in-the-making status — if they were even aware of it.

“They were working hard,” Dahlin said later, “so they didn’t think about me.”

Rasmus Dahlin participates in a ball hockey clinic on Thursday. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Aside from some encouraging words, Dahlin was focused more on the hockey than on brief banter, too. Dahlin demonstrated the drill for the kids, and in between used the blade of his stick to scoop a puck, toss it several feet in the air, then catch it on the blade. He had an ongoing conversation with Blake Coleman, a New Jersey Devils forward who is a Dallas-area native and helped with the clinic. “He reminds me a little of Nico,” Coleman said, referring to his Swiss teammate Nico Hischier. “Very friendly, a little shy coming over. A really nice guy.”

Dahlin has a pleasant and quiet demeanor that is more noticeable when it’s contrasted against his chattier peers. At the end of the skills clinic, the children formed one long queue on the ice. Like an assembly line, they skated up to each prospect, got their jersey signed, and moved on to the next guy.

Brady Tkachuk, an 18-year-old St. Louis native and Boston University student, greeted each kid warmly. “Hi! How are you?” he said, often kneeling on the ice to be at eye level. “What’s your name?” For Tkachuk, the NHL is a family business and he has likely had role models in this regard. His dad, Keith, is a retired NHL winger and his brother, Matthew, plays for the Calgary Flames.

If Tkachuk was gregarious, Dahlin was amicable. He nodded hello to each kid, leaned over and signed his name. Dahlin was agreeable later, too, when a fan recognized him in street clothes (the wavy, sunny-blond hair is a giveaway) and asked him for an autograph. Dahlin, who was walking through the ice rink parking lot to visit at an outdoor ball hockey tournament, stopped to sign until an NHL official gently pulled him away.

Is Dahlin the Sabres' savior? The psychology of first-round hype

Long recognized as a star in Sweden, Dahlin is accustomed to the attention. He played in the Olympics and a pair of World Junior tournaments, including one in Buffalo in 2017, and got plenty of in-country coverage with his Swedish team, the Frölunda Indians. But the North American-sized media crush, which he experienced three weeks ago at the NHL Combine in Buffalo, at the Stanley Cup finals in Washington and again here in Dallas, is new. So are the unrelenting questions about something that is still somewhat intangible: His future.

Yes, Dahlin is quite likely to become a Buffalo Sabre.

But he is not one yet.

And yes, Dahlin is thinking about what it’ll be like to hear his name called in the draft.

But nobody has done that yet — so how much can he say?

When the top eight prospects gathered Thursday afternoon in Dallas’ Reunion Tower for interviews, Dahlin easily attracted the largest media scrum. He sat in a tall chair, his name on a placard to his right, the Dallas skyline visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him, and began fielding questions.

A reporter asked Dahlin if he has imagined what it will be like to hear his name called first.

“I actually haven’t thought about it so much yet,” he said. “I’m trying to enjoy the time here, and be with my family and all my friends. Tomorrow I will think more about it.”

Dahlin mentioned that his mother, father, brother and sister are in Dallas with him.

“Have you been able to enjoy yourself?” someone asked.

“Of course,” he said “I’ve been here two days now. We’ve been to restaurants. We just hang out.”

Most of his answers weren’t digging deep, so when Dahlin mentioned that his parents are his greatest supporters, a reporter asked about their best advice.

“Probably, ‘Be yourself,’ ” Dahlin said.

Rasmus Dahlin skates at a youth hockey clinic. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

On that note, then, what did Dahlin want the fans of Buffalo to know about himself? What would he like to share with people that they can’t glean from watching him on the ice?

“Oh,” Dahlin said, allowing a half-laugh and pausing. “Uh, I don’t know. If they want to know something, just ask me.”

He laughed, and the questions continued. Each one of them was strategic; they were designed to peel a layer and find out what it’s truly like to be on the eve of entering hockey’s greatest league as its greatest defensive hope.

“It feels crazy to be here, actually,” Dahlin said. “I can’t believe it. Sometime in the near future I will stop and think, ‘What am I going through?’ and all that kind of stuff. But I’m just trying to enjoy this time as much as I can.”

Watch: Rasmus Dahlin on Sabres, NHL Draft

Someone asked if Dahlin is nervous.

“Probably tomorrow,” Dahlin said, “but not right now. Like I said, I’m doing everything I can here to just enjoy the time here.”

Which tells you what you need to know about Dahlin, and probably hints at one of his greatest skills on ice, too. He focuses on the moment. This moment, in the media room, involved answering questions — and, in fairness, doing so in English, a language that Dahlin has only used frequently in the last few years. (When Swedish reporters asked him questions in his native language, Dahlin’s answer were longer and seemed more expressive.)

Friday’s moment is being drafted. When that happens – and only then – he becomes NHL property. That’s when questions like this one become relevant: “Have you thought about what a power play with you and Jack Eichel” – the Sabres’ first-rounder from 2015 – “might be like?”

“I haven’t thought about anything in that way,” Dahlin said. “The only thing I can think about is tomorrow and how excited I am.”

And, perhaps, how excited an entire city will be when he is no longer a great hope but, instead, simply a Sabre.

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