Back in the day, Bobby Orr was a teenaged defenseman in the NHL. So were Paul Coffey, Phil Housley, Larry Murphy, Raymond Bourque and (for a very short time) Denis Potvin. All of them were stars who ended up in the Hall of Fame. None of them had seven points in their team’s first four games of the season while they were teenagers.
Do you know who does, though? 19-year-old Rasmus Dahlin, that’s who. Like the rest of his team, Dahlin has feasted on a Buffalo Sabres power play that is white-hot through the first four games of the season. Of their 18 goals, the Sabres have scored seven of them on the power play and of Dahlin’s seven points, five of them (all assists) have come with the man advantage. But the last time we checked, power plays were a significant part of a team’s ability to win games, so the Sabres will take it.
Like all young defensemen, Dahlin still has a ways to go in his own end and, judging by his play in a 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night, with his neutral-zone awareness and play with the puck. On the Canadiens’ shorthanded goal, Dahlin lost the puck to Joel Armia in the neutral zone and was out of the play when it came back the other way. That left Armia uncovered in front of the net for an easy goal on a pass from Nate Thompson.
It’s not quite the same as it was growing up in Sweden, where Dahlin said coaches are much more tolerant of those kinds of mistakes. The fact that he kept getting thrown out on the ice, he said, is part of what developed his skills to where they are now. “You can do more mistakes,” Dahlin said during the NHL’s pre-season media tour. “The coach just says, ‘Do it again, do it again,’ until it works out. I think that helped me a lot when I was younger. I try stuff out there and I got a lot better on the stuff I was trying. I think it’s good for young players, that coaches just let them play.”
To the Sabres credit, though, those are the kind of mistakes they are willing to live with from a 19-year-old phenom defenseman. When the Sabres purged their coaching staff after last season, they decided to keep Steve Smith on as an assistant coach under Ralph Krueger. Smith runs the defense and Dahlin was happy he was kept on. “You can make a mistake and coaches say, ‘Get in there and do the same thing. It’ll work out next time,’ ” Dahlin said. “Our coach 'Smitty' is an unreal coach. He really trusts the players. I’m super happy that he stayed. He’s so calm and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s won a few Stanley Cups. I respect that man a lot. Everyone does in the locker room.”
(Of course, Smith was guilty of one of the most egregious errors in hockey history, attempting a pass through the middle of the ice from behind his own net and banking the puck off goalie Grant Fuhr in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 1986, a goal that cost the Oilers the series and prevented them from having a chance to win five straight Stanley Cups. Smith was a 23-year-old rookie at the time and went on to have a solid career, winning three Cups with the Oilers. So the guy knows something about having patience with young defensemen.)
One thing helping Dahlin is that defensively he’s being given a reasonable workload. The tandem of Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen are charged with the task of doing most of the Sabres’ heavy lifting on that front, both in terms of ice time and matchups. So far, Krueger has Dahlin playing 18:36 per game, which is 2-1/2 minutes less per game than he logged during his rookie season, so perhaps less is more here. He’s also second among Buffalo defensemen in offensive zone starts, which indicates he’s being put in a position to succeed. Last season, Dahlin felt he really flagged in the last 20 games of the season, which is understandable since that was double the schedule he played in Sweden, but says he’ll be more prepared for the rigors of the NHL this season. So far, he’s off to a phenomenal start.
“Of course I want to score more goals and get more assists, stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “But last year I had more points than I expected. This year, I want more. That’s why I play.”
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.