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COMMENTARY

When it comes to Rasmus Dahlin, Ralph Krueger taking a measured approach

Mike Harrington

Rasmus Dahlin is 19.

Let's repeat that sentence so it's clear to everyone: Rasmus Dahlin is 19.

He's played 87 NHL games. Not 387. Not 587. Not 787. Just 87. Sometimes, that's easy to forget. Sure, he was a Calder Trophy finalist in June, and there's hope he will be a Norris Trophy candidate and a superstar probably sooner rather than later.

Stats are glossy: He entered Saturday's play second in the NHL among defensemen in both assists (6) and points (7). The seven points came in the first four games of the season — the most ever recorded by a teenage defenseman through his team's opening quartet of games.

But he's 19. Which means he will struggle at times, no matter how many points he's piling up.

When that happened Friday, Ralph Krueger sat Dahlin for the last 9 1/2 minutes of regulation in the Sabres' 3-2 shootout win over Florida. Buffalo's new coach has his demands. Nothing wrong with Dahlin's offensive skills. We all know that. But like any young defenseman, he can be better with his puck management.

"We've gone 11 days in a row without a day off to start the season," Krueger said after his team improved to 4-0-1 for the first time since 2009. "There's been a lot of effort invested in getting the results that we've had. You could see a few guys tapering off, and we just thought we were protecting them in that little stretch down there.

"We knew Florida was going to push hard so we went with a little more experience. But Rasmus has played outstanding with his learning and growing every day, and there's going to be moments like that where we going to reduce the lineup to go with the guys we think have the best chance of closing. He will definitely be in that mix eventually."

Sabres off to their best start since 2009-10 following shootout win over Panthers

Initially, the decision seemed curious. Dahlin didn't contribute to a goal against the Sabres. He played 17:56 and had six shot attempts. Sometimes Krueger seems to go on feel, and he clearly felt Dahlin was a little worn down.

Dahlin's last shift of the third period seemed to indicate that. In one 65-second span, he missed the puck behind the net, then missed a check behind the net and had a turnover below the goal line. All on the same 65-second shift. Krueger and defensive assistant Steve Smith decided that was enough for regulation (Dahlin took one shift in overtime).

Dahlin's season to date includes a highlight-reel goal on opening night against Pittsburgh and five assists on the lethal Buffalo power play. He has a plus-2 rating and a Corsi of just more than 55 percent. But there have been some uneven moments at 5-on-5, too. He has been unusually sloppy with the puck, especially in the neutral zone.

"I know there will be times that don't go as well. I understand that," Dahlin said. "When it doesn't feel right, just put the puck in down low, get our guys to work it."

"I want to give his parents a hug every day because he’s such a nice kid and he really, truly, for a young guy, he’s wise beyond his years," Smith said during training camp. "He wants to get better. He likes to listen. He doesn’t have a problem with criticism. He wants to know if he’s done right or wrong. He truly tries to please every day. Add that component to all the ability he has, that’s why we all feel he has an opportunity to become a star in the league."

It will be interesting to see what kind of response the Sabres get from Dahlin. They were off Saturday and the next game is an interesting one: Monday's matinee visit from the Dallas Stars. Their lineup includes fellow sophomore defenseman Miro Heiskanen, whom many observers feel was a snub among the Calder finalists last season.

(An aside here: Who was Heiskanen going to supplant in that vote? Vancouver's Elias Petterson was the winner and St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington lifted the Blues from oblivion into the playoffs. Dahlin had a 44-point season that was one of the greatest ever for an 18-year-old defenseman. Those were three slam-dunk finalists.)

Dahlin said he's come to understand that not every shift can end in big scoring chances or goals. He's learning the same lesson that Jack Eichel did: Some shifts are 50-50 plays and you need to move to the next one.

"I really found that out last year and started to learn from it," Dahlin said. "It's not fun when nothing happens, but you've just got to play your best, play easy at times. It's important to know that."

Krueger loves how coachable Dahlin is and how he has excellent listening skills. As a No. 1 overall pick, Dahlin has lived through a lot of hype. Now it's about developing his skills.

"Any player who is drafted first overall comes from a world where he had the puck all the time. You'll see that with any pick in the first two or three in the National Hockey League," Krueger said. "We coaches have to come in and be hard on them on the game without the puck and what the responsibility is.

"As a defenseman to play 25 minutes, if the coaches do not trust you, you won't get those minutes. Doing that without taking away their genius is the challenge for us coaches."

Krueger has some experience in this area. Edmonton took Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, respectively, at No. 1 overall in 2010 and 2011. Krueger said Hall was the first Oiler he met when he joined the club as an associate coach in the summer of '10.

"Taylor did not know there was a game without the puck really because he had the puck all the time in junior," Krueger said. "He was the very first player I worked with closely. ... I remember the conversations with him. To see him become the player he is today, he's like one of your kids in the history of your coaching. For sure, there's a lot of parallels there."

"It's different to know what to do without the puck," Dahlin said. "Playing the first year all 82 games, you get used to it. It's very important to learn what to do when you don't have it. You don't want to get scored on and you have to be in the right spots at the right time."

Dahlin was the first No. 1 overall pick on defense since Florida took Aaron Ekblad in 2014 one spot before the Sabres' selection of Sam Reinhart.

"Good player, no doubt. He's really skilled, really good on all sides of the puck," Ekblad said of Dahlin before Friday's game against the Panthers. "He's got a lot of confidence with the puck as well, which is huge. From being in that situation, I know you can lose that confidence at times pretty quick. To really have a good head on your shoulders is huge, and I'm sure he does."

Smith said he was impressed how Dahlin analyzed last season, from both a team and individual standpoint.

"He talked about how difficult it was to go through the second half of the season and not winning many games, which tells you the competitiveness in the young man," Smith said. "He did run out of steam at about midseason last year and we did have to back off from him. We had to leave him alone and keep him out of the gym.

"We talked a little bit about if he’s eating right and sleeping right. Whether that 82-game schedule versus the 30- or 40-game schedule overseas was starting to get to him. He was smart enough to know when to push it hard and when to back off."

Krueger and Smith gave Dahlin a push late Friday night. All part of his development.

News Sports Reporter Lance Lysowski contributed to this report.

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