"To me, I look at him and I see Nick Lidstrom. I do. He's very efficient, probably doesn't realize how good he is yet. He's going to be a dominant player for years to come. He's just scratching the surface of how good he's going to be."
New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz on Rasmus Dahlin, Dec. 31
The plaudits are everywhere for Rasmus Dahlin, like the one that compared him to the Detroit Red Wings legend. From his teammates. From rivals. From the oohs and ahhs that emanate from the KeyBank Center stands. There have been superstar moments for Dahlin in the first half of his rookie season. There have been, well, rookie moments too.
Most games, the Buffalo Sabres' first No. 1 overall draft pick in 31 years has been as good as advertised, quickly establishing that he's going to be a cornerstone of this franchise for many years.
"It's been unreal so far," Dahlin told The Buffalo News on Friday. "We've played really good at times. I've played really good at times. Other times are tougher. But it's been a great start. I couldn't be happier. I'm all settled in with the boys, part of this team. It's been great."
It's hard to ask an 18-year-old to do much more, particularly as a defenseman, in his first NHL season. The Sabres have come to rely on Dahlin as a regular on their blueline and on their power play.
Entering the weekend, Dahlin led NHL rookie defensemen with 20 points and was tied for third among all first-year players in scoring. When he got his 20th point in his 37th game on Dec. 22 against Anaheim, he became the fourth-fastest blueliner in history to get 20 points at age 18. He trailed only Florida's Aaron Ekblad (34 games), Boston legend Ray Bourque (30) and some guy named Phil Housley, who needed only 28 games to get there in 1982.
"It's a little different now. The team structure is a lot better than it was when I started my career," said Housley, now serving as Dahlin's first NHL head coach with the Sabres at age 54. "He's a tremendous talent. The X's and O's he's learning, but this game is instinctive. He's got great instincts in his game so we're trying to let that come out. He's got responsibilities, but we want him to attack the game like he can."
Among candidates for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, Dahlin is certainly in the top five. There's Vancouver's Elias Pettersson, who stands as a clear favorite. There's Dallas defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who is averaging 22:57 per game, the only NHL rookie on the ice more than Dahlin's 20:27. There's Ottawa forward Brady Tkachuk and Carolina winger Andrei Svechnikov, taken No. 2 after Dahlin.
"I really like his development right now," Housley said of Dahlin. "We talk about this all the time that we've got young players and we have to live and die with the mistakes. All those things are game management. How do you manage the game? What's the score? How much time is on the clock?
"When you watch his game, he can make that breakout pass, really break down a forecheck with good passing. It's all those other elements, like getting ahead of the puck when we don't need to score. He's going to continue to manage his game and I like where he is."
Dahlin has played more than 20 minutes of ice time in 20 of 41 games in the first half.
"Before the season, I said to myself I wanted to fight for it and I'm happy for that," he said. "Some games you won't play as many minutes, but I like to play a lot. It's a big part of my game."
First half by the numbers
In the 41 games covering the first half, Dahlin had four goals, 16 assists, 20 points with a plus-2 rating. He had a Corsi rating of 50.7 percent at even strength and 56.7 percent in all situations.
Vs. East: 1-9-10/minus-3.
Vs. West: 3-7-10/plus-5.
In the team's 22 wins: 3-12-15/ plus-13
In the team's 19 regulation/OT losses: 1-4-5/ minus-11.
October: 1-3-4/ minus-1
November: 1-9-10 /plus-9 (NHL Rookie of the month)
December: 2-4-6/ minus-6
In 12 Saturday games: 4-7-11/ plus-8
(Dahlin: "All the goals are on Saturday? Really? My lucky day then I guess.")
All other days (29 games): 0-9-9/ minus-6
Most ice time: 29:15, Dec. 4 vs. Toronto
Lowest ice time: 8:58, Nov. 3 vs. Ottawa (left game early after taking shot to foot)
From the other side
* Florida coach and former Sabres defenseman Bob Boughner: "You can see after a few months in the league he's already a completely different player, that much more comfortable. You got to the point where you could tell he's a great player, but now we've seen him start to dominate games. He's going to get better and better. You can really see a major difference now from a month or two ago."
* Reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay: "He's been great. We saw he's so poised with the puck out there, plays big minutes, is physical in his play, has a great playing sense and great shot. I'm very impressed with the way he's played at 18. He's got a bright future ahead, but the thing that's interesting to me is he's a difference maker for them right now. It's a big reason they're having success."
* San Jose's Erik Karlsson, a player Dahlin was widely compared to heading into the draft: "It took me a lot longer to find my stride. For him, it's like he's ready to play right now and obviously doing a great job at it. That's something that I didn't have at that age. Comparing the two of us from where he is right now, he's miles ahead.
"He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played, with a lot of enthusiasm, fun and skill. But he's dedicated to playing the right way. He plays as tough as he can when he needs to and he's not afraid to do things that put himself out of his comfort zone, which is fun to see. For being a young guy like that, to be able to grasp all those aspects of the game is very rare and doesn't come along too often."
* Nashville's Mattias Ekholm, another fellow Swede: "It seems he's been handling everything really well. There's been a lot said about him, a lot written about him in the press. Once you get over here with the time difference, it's not like the games are seen at home a lot when you're talking 1, 2 or 3 in the morning. It's tough to be that big, big figure but right now in hockey he's one of the biggest ones we have. People are paying attention."
Dahlin was particularly frustrated during the Dec. 11 overtime win against Los Angeles as his one-timers from the right circle were flailing high and wide. At the end of one power play shift, in fact, he leaned on his stick and snapped it in frustration.
Captain Jack Eichel worked with him in practice the next day on elbow positioning. Fellow defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said he had a good laugh at Dahlin's expense about the stick – but wanted him to learn from the experience, too.
"Emotion is good, but sometimes there's different type of emotion," Ristolainen said. "That was one time where I thought maybe he was a little too high there. Slamming doors and breaking sticks. We got looks, had time in their zone on the power play and couldn't score. You just have to be patient. I just told him that when the next chance comes, we're going to put it in. Just relax and do your thing."
Ristolainen said he's amazed how quickly Dahlin worked into becoming a key part of the team.
"It's totally different already if you look at him now than the first month," Ristolainen said. "He's really doing his thing, really being him. We had not seen that before. He's more comfortable. He can do all his things out there and he's been great."
Being a high draft pick as a defenseman is a particularly grueling challenge. Zach Bogosian understands it, being selected No. 3 overall of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008. So he knows what Dahlin has been going through.
"The first few weeks he was just trying to find his way," Bogosian said. "Most kids his age are going off to college and doing things that 18-year-olds do, and here he's coming into a locker room with some guys around his age but there's men in here too. It's not the easiest environment to adjust to.
"But he's done great. He's a great person and an amazing player. For him, it's maybe just trying to find his groove a little bit. We haven't even seen close to how good he's really going to be. His potential is through the roof. he gets better and better every day, every week and it's been fun to see."
Quick hits with Dahlin
* Favorite road arena so far: Vegas. "That place was just awesome. Incredible."
* Current thoughts on chicken wings after noting during the NHL Scouting Combine that medium at the Anchor Bar was tough to handle: "They are so spicy. I'm just not a fan. It's sad to say because I know people love them. But too spicy for me."
* Favorite Buffalo food: "I love the steaks here. So many good ones. Anywhere I go, I take steak."
* How much was the bill for the team rookie meal held in Las Vegas that Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt had to pay for? "Just write it was a lot."
* How much can change in a year?: "Last year this time, I'm in Buffalo with Sweden in the (World) Juniors. Then I'm in the Olympics. Now I'm here. The draft and everything. Things are going really, really quick. I've learned how to handle it all. I've been lucky. It comes naturally when I get put somewhere new."
* Point of emphasis for the second half: "I want to be a little sharper in the 'O' zone, work to get more chances and maybe score more goals."