So it turns out the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang will not be completely devoid of NHL superstar talent after all. It will simply be a case of delayed gratification. The greed and pigheadedness displayed by the NHL and the International Olympic Committee will prevent us from seeing the best players in the world on the globe’s biggest stage, but at least we’ll be able to watch future greatness.
When Team Sweden announced its roster for the Olympics earlier today, Rasmus Dahlin’s name was on it. The consensus first overall pick in the NHL draft should make a tournament that will already be rife with interesting story lines a little more intriguing. Dahlin will be 17 years and 286 days old when the puck drops for Sweden’s first game Feb. 15, which will almost certainly make him by far the youngest player in the tournament.
It should come as no surprise that Dahlin is part of the Swedish team for the tournament. It’s unlikely he would have been a candidate for the Swedish team if the NHL had been participating, since there are a total of 33 defensemen in Sweden who have played at least one NHL game this season. With the likes of Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, John Klingberg, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson, even if Sweden had found a way to get Dahlin on the roster, it would have been in a very limited role.
But after winning a silver medal at the World Junior Championship and being named the tournament’s top defenseman, Dahlin will almost certainly have prime responsibility and play significant minutes. You can bet the bottom five teams in the NHL will be in attendance to watch Dahlin’s every move. And judging by his poised play in the WJC, it doesn’t look as though the increased scrutiny will affect him one bit.
Dahlin is not considered a generational player in the Connor McDavid/Auston Matthews mold, but he’s close. And he may eventually develop into that kind of player. Talent evaluators are seriously comparing him to the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson. In fact, Lidstrom himself has done nothing to discourage those comparisons. Dahlin has been playing in the top league in Sweden since last season and is tied for second among defensemen in scoring with Frolunda.
As far as the draft is concerned, since 1997 there have been as many goaltenders (two) as defensemen who have gone first overall, but that will change this season with Dahlin. He went into the World Juniors already holding down the top spot and despite outstanding performances from Brady Tkachuk of USA and Filip Zadina of the Czech Republic, Dahlin actually widened the margin between him and his peers. He was that good. And another strong showing in the Olympics will put his status as No. 1 in quick-drying cement and make him the most anticipated defenseman to come along in the draft since Denis Potvin in 1973. (I’m willing to listen to the cases for Bryan Berard in 1995 and Chris Pronger in 2003, but when it comes to hype entering the draft, Dahlin is carrying more than they did. I had a scout at the WJC tell me that in terms of his play, Dahlin is light years ahead of what Pronger was at the same age.)
Dahlin will also be the most anticipated young player to play in the Olympics since Peter Forsberg in 1994. Two years after Eric Lindros played for Canada, Forsberg put his indelible stamp on the tournament and in Swedish hockey history with his shootout winner in the gold medal game against Canada. Four years later, the NHL became involved in the Olympics and gone were the days, at least temporarily, of the best non-NHLers in the world capturing our imaginations.
It would be unfair to suggest that Dahlin will have a Forsberg/Lindros-like effect on the tournament, since Forsberg was 21 when he played and Lindros was almost 19 and had already been drafted first overall. It would also be expecting a little too much for Dahlin to save the tournament from an excitement standpoint. But he certainly has the potential to make it more memorable.
What can we expect to see from Dahlin in Pyeongchang? Well, basically more of what we saw from him at the WJC and what he’s displayed in Sweden. There really isn’t a deficiency in his game. He is a 200-foot defenseman who rarely coughs the puck up when he’s under pressure and can skate or pass it out with equal aplomb. His work in front of the net and along the boards has improved and he has no problem playing a physical game. It’s what he’s been doing for the past two years in Sweden, no reason not to see it when the puck drops in Pyeongchang.
This tournament will still be plenty exciting, with lots of mistakes, lots of scoring chances and some pretty chaotic play at times. You don’t need NHL players to have an exciting product. But everything just got a little more intriguing now that Dahlin is in the mix.
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