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Rasmus Dahlin Enters the Norris Trophy Conversation

The 22-year-old defenseman has been an important reason the Buffalo Sabres' success in October.
Rasmus Dahlin

When the 2018 NHL draft rolled around and Buffalo stood at the podium and selected Swedish defender Rasmus Dahlin, the rebuild was supposed to be coming to an end. They had just selected Jack Eichel a couple of years prior who was set to be their franchise center, and now they had the defensive pillar all powerhouse teams need.

The problem? The Sabres’ weren’t quite out of the woods yet. The rebuild was far from over.

Eichel was eventually moved after a tumultuous relationship with the franchise and Dahlin had struggled to truly become the difference maker that the scouting world envisioned. He was putting up offensive numbers and setting records in that regard, but his game lacked substance. It lacked that difference-making ‘It Factor’ that the game's best players have.

The Sabres had three head coaches in Dahlin’s first three years, finally finding some stability in Don Granato during a time when stability in the world was at its lowest during a global pandemic. This helped Dahlin begin to unlock the potential he had. It just took some deprogramming of bad habits from what the previous coaches had previously instilled.

Fast forward to the start of this season and 22-year-old Dahlin is one of the most impactful players in the NHL through October and has emerged as an early Norris candidate. His 12 points in nine games lead the league’s blueliners, and his transition play has been absolutely brilliant so far.

Buffalo looks to have taken a legitimate step to start the year, which included an undefeated trip through Western Canada. Dahlin’s hot start coincided with Buffalo’s as he recorded a point in each of the team’s first six games - with a goal in the first five.

So what has been the change that has unlocked the immense talent that the young Swede always had in him?

Freedom to run.

Granato enabled every player on his team to play to their strengths. He hasn’t asked any of his players to play a reserved and muted game the way former coach Ralph Krueger had been. While Kreuger wanted to tame his horses, Granato knows that his horses are best when they are unleashed.

Going back to last season, Dahlin’s return to form has been a pleasure to watch. He regained confidence as a puck carrier and worries much less about what he has to do to make up for a mistake. Dahlin is comfortable understanding there will be far more highs than lows if he pushes the pace and attacks every play as if the next goal is the only one that matters.

Dahlin began to use his skating and physical tools in a more cohesive nature. He pairs his mobility and on-ice vision on the breakout to move the puck up ice. The Sabres' top defender cuts through traffic in the neutral zone with his puck skills and identifies skating lanes in transition to gain clean entries into the offensive zone. Once there, he becomes a rover, manipulating defenders high in the zone and making plays with his feet, hands, and offensive mind.

His defensive play has improved by proxy as well. With the confidence to make plays and use his tools, he’s more effective at preventing goals because he has the puck more often. The best defense in the modern NHL is a good offense. You can’t be scored on if the puck is on your stick.

Playing confidently has also helped his ability to actually defend in-zone as well. Using his speed as well as his 6-foot-3 frame has allowed him to cut off cycles effectively and wrestle the puck off opponents along the wall. He’s become a bit more consistent at clearing the net front and he has continued to excel at staying in front of opposing attackers in space.

He isn’t perfect. He can still get beat by high-octane attackers because he does play aggressively. If he closes the gap quickly as he often does and the opposing player gets a step, Dahlin can wind up in a poor position behind the puck carrier. His skating and physical strength often get him back into plays though.

That’s the key. He can make up for his mistakes. Coach Granato knows that. Dahlin knows that. When you have a coach and player who both understand what the full power of an incredibly talented player can do for a team, you get the best of that talented player.

That’s not to say that Granato isn’t asking Dahlin to be responsible. It’s that he isn’t punishing him for making mistakes while trying to make a play for his team. It’s respect for the talent that’s reciprocated by the player doing what he’s asked by the coach.

Dahlin has clearly taken a step this season. His play has been noticed league-wide. The young Swede seems older than he is because he’s already been in the league for four years. Still just 22, Dahlin isn’t even into his prime yet.

If Dahlin’s hot start is any indication, he could be getting into the Norris Trophy conversation at season’s end. His ability to produce offensively, transition the puck up ice with efficiency, and his steady improvements on defense are all great signs.

We are entering the golden age of puck-moving defensemen. Roman Josi and Kris Letang remain from the old guard. Cale Maker, Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes, Miro Heiskanen and now, Dahlin have arrived on the scene moving forward.

It’s a great time to be a fan of highly-skilled offensive defensemen. 

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