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Mike Harrington: Sabres must capitalize on Rasmus Dahlin's impact

Mike Harrington

DALLAS — It was a moment nearly two months in the making that lasted all of two minutes. Might it impact the Buffalo Sabres for the next two decades?

That's absolutely the hope as the Sabres finally made it official Friday night by taking Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 overall pick of the NHL Draft.

Not as short and sweet and gruff as former General Manager Tim Murray, General Manager Jason Botterill eloquently uttered the words that will resonate for a long time in the 716 when he stepped to the microphone and said: "On behalf of our great fans in Western New York, the Buffalo Sabres are proud to select Frolunda defenseman Rasmus Dahlin."

The roars filled American Airlines Center as Dahlin rose to his feet and hugged his mother (Asa), father (Martin), sister (Ella) and brother (Felix).

He headed to the stage and was met there by Botterill, coach Phil Housley, owners Terry Pegula, owner/president Kim Pegula and director of scouting Ryan Jankowski. He donned his blue jersey with the No. 18 on it (all draftees get handed No. 18, so don't think the Sabres are un-retiring Danny Gare's jersey).

Think of how big this is. Dahlin instantly gives the Sabres an international following in Sweden and the likely ticket to games there someday soon. Jack Eichel called and chatted with Dahlin for a few minutes about an hour after the pick was made. Josh Allen tweeted at Dahlin that they're going out for wings. (I imagine a few more people would want to be a fly on the wall for that meal, instead of just the one guy with the iPhone who spied Murray and Doug Whaley that afternoon last year at Osteria 166.)

Sabres fans have been left with little hope after years of losing. The season-ticket base was about to fall through the floor until the lottery victory, placing the hopes of the franchise squarely on the shoulders of an 18-year-old from Sweden.

"The only thing I can do is bring all I can to that team to win hockey games," Dahlin said. "I'm super excited to do that. I’ve seen a bunch of guys play on that team. I’ve seen guys, so it’s amazing to be a part of the organization."

All the pressure in the world is on the kid. He's as close as a sure thing as you're going to find with an 18-year-old defenseman. People say he's Erik Karlsson, maybe even better than Nicklas Lidstrom at this age.

Botterill & Co. simply have to get this right. Eichel is a potentially great player who simply hasn't been because he hasn't had enough help around him. Now you have Dahlin to go with Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt and it's a fabulous start.

They need to get faster up front and faster on the blueline. It's what Botterill wants. It's what Phil Housley wants. Dahlin can make it happen.

"Just in general our team does have to get faster and I've talked about how it's bringing players who can physically skate faster and it's about getting the coaching staff and players on the same system to play faster," Botterill said. "When you move the puck up quicker to the forwards, the team looks faster all together. It's something we've focused in on with our amateur staff, and our pro staff is looking at different trade options of trying to bring some more speed to our lineup."

The Sabres didn't bounce back into the top 20 of the draft Friday and, in fact, no one else did either. Lesson of the night: Sometimes all those trade rumors you hear on the Internet aren't worth the web space they're found on. Lotta hot air.

It means Botterill has lots of work to do Saturday and into next week. He says deals often get formulated at the draft and consummated later. No reason not to take his word for it.

The Ryan O'Reilly talks still seem hot. There was plenty of chatter late Friday night about the St. Louis Blues, who need help down the middle and seem to be accepting they don't have much of a shot at John Tavares.

Botterill is desperate for a goalie now that he's signed off that there will be no return of Robin Lehner. And no Philipp Grubauer either, now that the Washington backup is off to Colorado. As wondrous as Dahlin is, Botterill better find someone to stop some pucks or this team still isn't going very far.

But no matter what Botterill does, he has his signature piece. Pretty darn good building block.

"I do believe he can come in and contribute to our team but you can't expect an 18-year-old to come in and play against other teams' top lines in crucial situations all the time," Botterill said. ".... We have to surround him with better players."

Fans and media are understandably full of hyperbole but Dahlin hasn't buckled to hype to this point. He's not going to let it get to him now.

"I love to play hockey," Dahlin said. "Why put pressure on you when you can play the game because you love it?"

You have to love the attitude about his game. And the pure joy in Dahlin's face and in his voice about his dream of the NHL ending up with this bedraggled franchise.

That's an adjective you would hope is heading for the scrapheap. It should be a long, long time before they draft in the top 10 again.

"I think you've seen in his quotes how excited he is to come to the city to become part of Buffalo, part of the Sabres organizaiton and part of our community," Botterill said. "That gets the Pegulas and that gets me very excited.

"It’s amazing. Like, finally putting on a Buffalo Sabres jersey," Dahlin said. "I've been there twice and I love that city. I can’t wait to get everything started. It’s been a long wait. You can’t really plan anything, but finally, today, I can plan my future. I love to call my new town 'Buffalo.' "

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