Welcome back to the newest edition of The THN Hot Seat, an ongoing series of THN.com columns in which we identify one person in each NHL city who’ll be dealing with a ton of pressure in the 2022-23 season. The nominee may be an NHL player, coach, or team owner.
In this file, we’re examining the Buffalo Sabres.
SABRES HOT SEAT: RASMUS DAHLIN, DEFENSE
WHY: You don’t want to put a team’s fortunes on the shoulders of a 22-year-old who has just two full NHL regular seasons under his belt, but it’s no coincidence the Sabres struggled last season when Dahlin did, and that Buffalo played better as Dahlin improved. The Swedish blueliner finished the 2021-22 campaign with career bests in goals (13), assists (40) and points (53), and thrived under the tutelage of head coach Don Granato.
The problem for Dahlin is consistency, and that’s an issue for most NHL D-men. But he now earns $6 million per season – second on the Sabres only to forward Jeff Skinner ($9 million) – and with that salary comes the expectation he’ll be a positive force at both ends of the ice. As Buffalo attempts to get back into the playoff picture in the Atlantic Division, they need him to be an anchor, and any regression by him almost certainly will hamper the Sabres’ competitiveness.
On the other hand, not only will Dahlin ease the pressure on himself with an above-average performance this coming season, he’ll take some of the heat off fellow young defensman Owen Power, who will be playing in his first full NHL season after an eight-game debut last year. Again, it’s not entirely fair to place so much on two youngsters, but it’s undeniable – if Dahlin wobbles, fans and media will turn more of their attention to Power’s development, and that may not be what’s best for him.
The rest of the Sabres’ defense corps isn’t exactly the cream of the league’s crop, although they did add veteran and former Maple Leafs D-man Ilya Lyubushkin as an unrestricted free agent. In addition, their new goaltending tandem of returning journeyman Craig Anderson and 27-year-old UFA signing Eric Comrie isn’t regarded as especially intimidating, so Dahlin and Power have their work in their own zone cut out for them.
And at the other end of the rink, Buffalo’s woeful offense needs all the help it can get, and at least, in that aspect of the game, Dahlin has proven himself worthy of the hype. He may not be on the level of Colorado superstar Cale Makar, but very few blueliners are. Another year of double-digits in goals and at least 50 points will suffice for Dahlin. Having stability behind Buffalo`s bench – Granato is Dahlin`s third NHL coach – is also important for his development, but ultimately, it's on Dahlin to show there's growth to his game.
Dahlin has two years remaining on his current contract, and at the end of it, he’ll be a restricted free agent. Sabres ownership gave him a sizeable raise on his standard rookie deal, but if he doesn’t improve all facets of his game, Dahlin will likely get a modest bump in pay next time he goes on the market. Sure, there will be teams prepared to outbid Buffalo for him with an offer sheet if it ever gets to that point, but Dahlin has always been committed to the organization that selected him first overall in 2018. It has been a rough few years for Dahlin and the Sabres, but if he can continue to develop into a true two-way force, the ride will have been worth it for both player and franchise.