So, Victor Olofsson was taking part in his fifth Buffalo Sabres rookie development camp – yeah, you read that right, his fifth – and he was feeling pretty good about himself. He should have. The kid has worked his way up from being a seventh-round pick four years ago to signing an entry-level NHL deal. He’s surrounded by his countrymen, so much so that the Sabres may one day have to change their logo to the Tre Kronor. (Or rename the team the Buffalo Fighting Rasmuses. More on that later.) And he led all players in the Swedish League with 27 goals this past season. Under normal circumstances, he’d be kind of a big deal around here.
In a drill during the first public workout of the camp held at Buffalo’s Harborcenter, Olofsson picked up the puck and went in, faked forehand, then went backhand and put it top shelf. You could hear the oohs and aahs from the crowd of 1,800 – yeah, you read that right, too – which was duly impressed. Two skaters later, Rasmus Dahlin took a pass, skated in and lasered one over the beleaguered goalie’s shoulder. The crowd went NBA-slam-dunk-contest bonkers…for a goal during a practice drill…in a rookie development camp…in June. Two days later, there were again oohs and aahs from the crowd when Dahlin laid out fellow prospect Matej Pekar with a thunderous hit during a half-ice game.
This is Buffalo: where the billionaire owner and his wife (who also serves as president of the couple’s sports empire) can’t seem to get out of their own way, where losses have far outnumbered wins, where dysfunction has replaced hope in the psyche of the battered fan base, where a since-traded guy making $7.5 million admitted after the season that the team had adopted a mindset of “being OK with losing” and that he had “lost the love of the game multiple times.”
Despite being a god-awful franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years and hasn’t won a playoff round in 11, the Sabres have had robust attendance numbers, all things considered. The Buffalo market always finishes near the top in U.S. TV ratings in the playoffs, usually third behind the two teams competing in the Stanley Cup final, and on a summer day in the middle of the week, almost 2,000 people showed up to watch the newest acquisition take passes and do drills.
This is a franchise blessed with diehard fans who desperately want their team to love them back, and watching a teenager wearing No. 26 in their team’s colors gives them the hope that it might finally happen soon.
It’s not the first time Olofsson has been shown up by Dahlin. For the past two years, they have been teammates on the Frolunda Indians in Gothenburg, so Olofsson has had a front-row seat to see Dahlin’s brilliance. In fact, it was at Dahlin’s first practice, when the kid was barely 16 playing against men, that Olofsson discovered first-hand the skill package Dahlin possesses. “He got the puck at the blueline, and I was going out toward him, and he just put it between my legs and scored,” Olofsson said. “That was probably the first time I noticed him. I thought it was a fluke at first. When he did it again and again, it’s not a fluke. I just feel the skill he has is so special. He’s above almost everyone else in skill.”
Olofsson, who has been to Buffalo so many times he should put in an offer on a place, continued to answer questions about the wunderkind, not once appearing annoyed that nobody seemed to care he had signed a contract and might make the team himself in the fall. “No, not at all,” he said. “He’s a special kid.”
You know who else was special? Gilbert Perreault, that’s who. Almost 50 years ago, Perreault was every bit as special as Dahlin is now. The Sabres got Perreault first overall in 1970, their first year as an expansion team, by having their number come up on the spin of a wheel. They needed a little less luck in getting Dahlin, winning the draft lottery by giving themselves the best odds with their 31st-place finish this past season. And unlike three years ago when they embraced The Tank in all its glory and got Jack Eichel with the second pick, this team was full marks for being putrid in 2017-18. The Sabres have had the No. 1 pick in the draft only one other time, in 1987 when they passed on Brendan Shanahan to take Pierre Turgeon.
Three days after he was drafted, Dahlin was in Buffalo shaking hands with corporate sponsors and developing a mutual admiration society with Perreault, who still works for the team as an ambassador. “You’re No. 1.” “No, you’re No. 1.” Then blushing. In the 48 years and 11 days between the time Perreault was chosen and Dahlin joined the fold, the Sabres haven’t won a Stanley Cup, and it’s safe to say there have been more bad times than good, especially lately. The NHL’s most anticipated defense prospect since Denis Potvin was drafted in 1973 will try to change that. But Dahlin spent the first couple days getting his head around how much this team means to this fan base and how badly the locals want this team to be good.
Pressure? What pressure? “I’m like an official person now, you know what I mean when I say that?” Dahlin said. “People know me more and people on the streets know who I am, but it’s just hockey. New team, new country and all that kind of stuff, but it’s just hockey. Not so much has changed, actually.”
Early in his tenure, Dahlin made all the right moves on and off the ice. First on the agenda was a dinner with Eichel, who will make $10 million next season, plus the seven seasons after that, and of whom much more is expected. The first thing that came out of Dahlin’s mouth after he was drafted in Dallas was, “I love to call my new town Buffalo. I’ve been there twice and I love that city.”
The second visit was for the draft combine, an event that has found a permanent home in Buffalo. The first visit was the 2018 World Junior Championship, where Dahlin had six assists in seven games for Sweden and was named top defenseman and to the all-star team. The good people of Buffalo didn’t know for certain that they were seeing a future Sabre, but they knew help was on the way in the form of Team USA center Casey Mittelstadt, who led the world juniors in scoring and took home MVP honors. The Sabres got a glimpse of what Mittelstadt could do at the NHL level when he joined them late this past season. After the trade of Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues, Mittelstadt figures to be pencilled in as the second-line center to start his rookie season, behind Eichel. You can do a lot worse than have players of that ilk down the middle of the ice.
The Sabres are teeming with good prospects. After twice making a serious push to be on the roster, Brendan Guhle looks ready to secure a spot on the blueline. Will Borgen, who signed as a free agent out of St. Cloud State University, was on the U.S. blueline for the 2018 Olympics, and Cliff Pu is primed for a huge offensive season in major junior.
If nothing else, the Sabres will have the market cornered on elite players named Rasmus. Along with Dahlin, the Sabres already have workhorse defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, a player who might benefit the most from Dahlin’s presence. And in the spring, the Sabres signed 2016 second-round pick Rasmus Asplund, who will start his pro career in the minors, but he comes to the Sabres after four years with men in Sweden.
Speaking of Sweden, of the 42 players the Sabres invited to their development camp, 10 were Swedish, and that didn’t include Alex Nylander, the Calgary-born son of former NHLer Michael Nylander and the younger brother of Toronto winger William Nylander, who played almost all his youth hockey in Sweden. That’s bound to happen when you go two complete drafts, as Jason Botterill has, without picking a single player from the CHL. Of the 12 picks the Sabres have made with Botterill as their GM, only two have been North Americans, Mittelstadt and defenseman Jacob Bryson, a Canadian who plays at Providence College.
(Notice we haven’t said much about Nylander, the eighth overall pick in 2016? Well, that’s because he has been more suspect than prospect to this point. He has struggled with injuries and doesn’t play with a lot of urgency when healthy. The attitude around the Sabres seems to be if he does indeed turn out to be an NHL-caliber player, it’ll be a bonus at this point.)
“It’s definitely exciting,” said Mittelstadt, who still has facial features that could help him pass as the team’s stick boy. “You see all these young guys here, and there’s a lot of speed and a lot of skill. It’s definitely something to look forward to. I have high expectations of myself. I don’t put any exact numbers on paper and want to get these numbers, but I have high expectations, and I’m hard on myself. I want to come in and play and prove I can make plays at the highest level.”
It seems things are finally getting real in Buffalo. The change in culture and the influx of young talent has everyone a little more excited. There is a long way to go, and Botterill, who cut his management teeth with the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, still has work to do. He set about doing that in June. In fact, 20 minutes before Dahlin made his debut in development camp, Botterill swung a trade to get left winger Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a salary dump for a conditional fourth-round pick.
Then on the first day of free agency, Botterill signed the best unrestricted goalie on the market when he inked 32-year-old Carter Hutton to a three-year deal at a team-friendly $2.75 million per season. A tandem of Hutton and Linus Ullmark is fraught with uncertainty, but the hope is the two of them can at least adequately fill a hole that has existed since Ryan Miller left. And the return on the O’Reilly trade was impressive. Patrik Berglund will slide in as the No. 3 center and he and Vladimir Sobotka could make up two-thirds of the third line. Tage Thompson has a massive frame that might be better suited on the wing, but there is potential there.
When you’re trying to change a losing culture, there are worse moves to make than picking up an undersized, undrafted winger who worked his way up from an amateur tryout contract in the minors to the top line with Sidney Crosby on two Stanley Cup-winning teams the way Sheary did. “He was a success story for the Penguins,” said Botterill, who was an integral part of the group that signed and developed him. “An undrafted kid who…found a way to become an American Hockey League all-star. Then he found a way to get to the National Hockey League. Then he found a way to help Pittsburgh win Stanley Cups. And that sort of determination and compete and work ethic are what we’re trying to bring into our group.”
That will help a team that was the only one in the NHL to score fewer than 200 goals in 2017-18 and gave up 81 more than it scored. In 82 games, the Sabres scored one or fewer goals 25 times, including a stretch in November and December when they went a week without scoring – three full games and a total of 232 minutes and nine seconds. They were almost as bad defensively, giving up a third-worst 280 goals. It took 28 games for a defenseman to score a goal, and their blueliners ended up with only 19 goals, two more than Dougie Hamilton, Ivan Provorov and Victor Hedman each scored by themselves.
The Sabres need goals. They need to stop goals. They need structure, but most of all they need to change the culture of losing that has permeated every crevice of the organization.
Eichel called out his teammates for a lack of effort on a number of occasions, and it’s clear three years of misery has taken their toll on the team’s franchise player. The infusion of youth will provide a boost to the organization in terms of talent and enthusiasm, but it’s imperative that the losing virus not get passed on to them. That’s where the leadership comes in and, as Botterill continues to supplement the lineup with more NHL-caliber players, that should improve.
But he knows that, for the most part, the veterans in the room that seemed to accept losing so easily are going to have change that mindset themselves. “To me, leadership and mentorship nowadays is never just one player,” Botterill said. “The days of Mark Messier are gone. It has to be a group effort. And having players such as (Marco) Scandella or (Zach) Bogosian or (Kyle) Okposo or (Jason) Pominville in our lineup helps all of our young players, including a young player like Rasmus.”
Ah, yes, Rasmus Dahlin. The standard three-year entry level contract with all the maximum bonuses is a formality. Dahlin will step into the lineup in Buffalo this coming season, and he will have an impact. Defensemen generally take longer to develop, but there are some, most recently Aaron Ekblad, who have turned that notion on its head.
Who’s to say you have to wait 200 games to find out how good you are? As much as the Sabres are trying not to put too much pressure on their young phenom, they need that transformation to be quick. And so do the long-suffering fans, who are waiting for something, anything to give them a reason to believe. “That’s my dream, to play in the NHL,” Dahlin said moments after he was drafted. “The only thing I can do is to bring all I can to that team to wins hockey games, and I’m super excited to do that.”
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.