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Rasmus Dahlin emerged as leader, top defenseman in fourth season with Sabres

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Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin celebrates his goal with the bench during the second period on Saturday.

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Rasmus Dahlin didn't want to make the same mistake twice.

There were nights during his fourth NHL season when Dahlin texted Buffalo Sabres coach Don Granato asking to watch video.

When Dahlin wasn’t happy about how he defended a one-on-one rush that led to a San Jose goal in early November, the 2018 first overall draft choice got on the ice early for practice multiple days to work through the exact scenario.

“He’s probably the hardest working guy on our team, with (Kyle) Okposo up there, too,” said Henri Jokiharju, who partnered with Dahlin on defense.

This was no different than Dahlin’s previous three seasons in Buffalo. He was always putting in extra work before and after practices. But the reason behind that pursuit to be great was different under Granato and his coaching staff.

Granato urged Dahlin to not worry about satisfying a coach or trying to live up to external expectations. Be yourself and use your instincts, Granato told his top defenseman. Unburdened from the fear of failure and the previous coach's philosophy that caused overthinking, Dahlin blossomed into a top player and leader for the Sabres.

Gone are the comparisons to Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom or San Jose’s Erik Karlsson. Dahlin, 22, showed the NHL that he has a one-of-a-kind combination of elite vision and skating, as well as an improved defensive game that allowed him to have success against top players.

“I guess it took a few years to understand that all the noise doesn’t matter,” Dahlin said. “So, yeah, this year I’ve barely used social media throughout the season. Small stuff like that helped me a lot. I mean, thanks to the coaches, too, that just let me do the mistakes and do all the wrongs to be able to get better. It’s a little bit of everything, but especially thanks to those guys.”

The change in Dahlin could be seen on and off the ice. He was no longer hesitating with and without the puck, a trend that negatively impacted his game when Ralph Krueger was coach. The remarkable plays were on display every night throughout the season, from end-to-end rushes to dynamic maneuvers to create space in the offensive zone. And he harnessed his fiery competitiveness to frustrate the league’s best, most notably the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews.

Pushing to add to a 4-2 lead at the Heritage Classic outside in Tim Hortons Field, Dahlin was defending the Sabres’ net when he was viciously cross checked in the neck by Matthews, who was suspended two games for the infraction.

“If you're looking at individual growth and you're not mentioning Rasmus Dahlin, I think it's folly,” Okposo said. “He took some steps this year, some giant ones. Just the way he figured out how to play on both sides of the puck this year. I think his defensive game was what gave him so much confidence offensively.

“However many points he had, it doesn't matter. But just the things that he was able to do and how he was able to figure out, 'OK, I can make this move at this time and I've got to flip the puck at this time.' That's something that only experience can tell you in the NHL. And he did a heck of a job figuring that out and growing this year.”

Offensively, Dahlin unleashed his potential and reached a new level. He set career highs in goals (13), assists (40), points (53) and average time on ice (24:01) across 80 games. Those feats were reached while defending the opponent’s top players seemingly every night.

He became the first Sabres defenseman to 50 points since Garry Galley in 1995-96, and his goal output was the highest since Jordan Leopold totaled 13 in 2010-11. Dahlin is responsible for two of the most productive seasons by a Buffalo defenseman in the last 25 years, as his .678 and .663 points per game in 2019-20 and 2021-22, respectively, trail only Brian Campbell’s production (.683) in 2008-09.

Dahlin quarterbacked a top power-play unit that helped the Sabres rank first in the NHL on the man advantage from March 27 until the end of the regular season. He had five goals and 16 points in the team’s final 20 games, producing seven multi-point games during that span.

“You're not always going to have your A game every night, 82 games,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said. “It's hard. But there's a lot of games where he was the best player on the ice, and he's the type of person that wants to be great, that wants to be the best, and he's going to put the work in. So those are the guys that you start to really get excited about because they're not satisfied. They want to be better.”

There wasn’t a clear path to contending when the Sabres’ season ended in May 2021. Krueger was fired 12 losses into a franchise-record 18-game winless streak. Granato coaxed more out of almost every player on the roster during his short time as interim coach, but it was unclear whether the franchise’s core would be dismantled, and a coaching search was looming.

Dahlin was among the young players who expressed hope and excitement for the future when meeting with management during exit interviews. He wanted to spearhead positive change for the franchise. And it was Dahlin who emerged as a leader this season when the Sabres had a dressing room that allowed for more voices to be heard.

His carried weight.

“I feel like a different person right now,” he beamed. “It’s been a fun ride, for sure.”

Empowered by coaches and teammates, Dahlin flourished. He’s now a franchise cornerstone and regarded as one of the league’s top young defenseman. His ascent this season included a spot in the NHL All-Star Game, where he saw that he belonged and the league’s best heaped praise upon him.

Defensively, he honed his attention to detail and learned how to kill plays while remaining in position to stifle a scoring chance. With a fearless approach, Dahlin was aggressive against opposing forwards in a way he could not be in previous seasons. 

And there’s more room for Dahlin to improve. The arrival of fellow No. 1 draft choice Owen Power and ascent of Mattias Samuelsson and Henri Jokiharju will take pressure off Dahlin. He was far from content as he prepared to join Sweden at the IIHF World Championships, which will be held in Finland from May 13-29. This, Dahlin said, is only the beginning.

“I want to say it’s a lot more,” he explained. “I’m not satisfied. This is the year I’m starting to play against the other team’s top line and trying to figure out how to play. I just want to take steps in all the areas. I want to be a defenseman that the coaches can trust in every single situation. I want to play PK, too, and I want to play everything. So, I think I want to say I have a lot more to give.”

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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