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Sabres savior: Meet Do-it-all defender Rasmus Dahlin

Picture Peter Forsberg on the blueline. That's what Buffalo is set to get in No. 1 NHL draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin – a slick, skilled, ultra-competitive and downright mean defenseman.

(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the 2018 Draft Preview issue of The Hockey News. It has been edited for online purposes.)

It's not a good time for Rasmus Dahlin. Not at 3:00 p.m. on a weekday in April in his native Sweden. A background scene bustles with voices on his end of the phone line. He apologizes. The interview will have to wait.

Fair enough. His plate is more than full. He’s weeks away from becoming the first Swede picked No. 1 overall in the NHL draft since Mats Sundin in 1989. Dahlin is the most-hyped defense prospect since…Aaron Ekblad? No, Ekblad wasn’t even a lock to go first overall in 2014. We ranked him second in the pages of THN. Victor Hedman? He went second overall in 2009. Bryan Berard in 1995? That doesn’t do justice to the Dahlin fever pitch. Heck, try Denis Potvin in 1973 to get the closest equivalent to the excitement Dahlin has generated as a blueliner locked into the first overall slot.

So, fine, he can’t spare a few minutes on the phone right now. He’s probably busy signing autographs or kissing babies or finalizing endorsement deals. That has to be it.

“Sorry,” he says. “Can we do this six hours from now? I’m in class.”

Ah yes, class. And that doesn’t mean writing a thesis on Marxism. No, the kid probably has a science project to finish or a quiz in history, his favorite subject. It’s easy to forget Dahlin turned 18 in mid-April. He’s not just young in the sense Auston Matthews is “still only a kid” after his team loses in the first round of the playoffs for a second straight year. Dahlin is a true peach-fuzzer, the kind with homework and curfews and paper-bag lunches to worry about. At the same time, he debuted at the World Junior Championship – and scored his first goal – representing the Tre Kronor by 16. He spawned tongue-wagging YouTube reels skating around – no, skating through – established U.S. prospects Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Poehling by 17. Erik Karlsson declared Dahlin “much better than I was at that age.” Ask scouts and coaches for comparisons and you get an answer far more hyperbolic than Karlsson or Hedman, too. You get the God of Swedish defensemen, Nicklas Lidstrom.

Those are staggering expectations to live up to, enough to scare almost any player. Dahlin isn’t one of them, though. Not that he downplays the hype with a canned comment about ignoring it. It’s the opposite. For Dahlin, the frenzy is the juice. It spurs him toward the gym or onto the ice quicker.

“It feels exciting when so many good players talk about me,” he said. “It’s amazing. I’m feeling like I want to be better and better and better because I’m on a good path, and why stop? You know what I mean? I can’t explain it in English but, like, when I hear that, I get a boost inside me and just go out and train and work hard.”

He eventually fishes out the English word he’s looking for: motivation. He’s not wired like most teenagers, and that makes sense given his upbringing. The Dahlins hail from Lidkoping, not to be confused with Linkoping, Sweden’s fifth-largest city and home to a 42-year-old Swedish League franchise. No, the cottagey little town of Lidkoping is home to about 25,000 people, one-sixth the population of Linkoping. Growing up in Lidkoping, Dahlin was part of such a pure hockey family that he never pondered another career. His father, Martin, played defense in Sweden’s second and third divisions for a decade and still dabbles in coaching. Rasmus’ older brother, Felix, played Tier III pro as a right winger. He’s just 20 now but has already retired from competitive hockey because of arthritis. Almost all Rasmus’ immediate family members suffer from it, including his mother and sister. But not to worry – multiple scouts suggest it’s not a problem in Rasmus, as he has shown no signs of it and it wouldn’t affect him until later in his career if it arrives. Teams do their medical homework, another scout said, and the fact Dahlin’s draft ranking hasn’t wavered at all suggests his body is just fine.

Dahlin has a devoted, understanding and, most of all, competitive support system. The games involving his extended family are fiery, he said, and sharpened his skills from his childhood through his early teens. One reason why he can dangle his way through opponents like a forward does: he was one. Dahlin’s childhood idol wasn’t, as one might expect, Lidstrom. It was Peter Forsberg.

“I love how he competes every single time he gets out on the ice,” Dahlin said. “I love how he played.”

And Dahlin will be pleased to hear Tomas Monten, his world junior coach, describe him this way:

“He’s a little like a Peter Forsberg character. He gets really mean. He has a high temper. That gives him a competitive edge at practices and especially in games. He doesn’t lose his head, but he competes. He’s going to have more dirty tricks than people think. He’s not going to take anything for granted, and he’s going to battle for everything.”

So the Forsberg worship forged a combination of dazzling puck skills and ornery intensity. At 13, it clicked for Dahlin that he could use those tools to bring a unique breed of offense from the blueline. He fell in love with the idea and moved to defense. It meant he could stay on the ice longer and control the game from end to end the way forwards couldn’t. Dahlin’s influence on games started to resemble Karlsson’s, and Dahlin ascended from the Swedish junior circuit to the nation’s top pro league quickly. He debuted with Frolunda at 16 last season, even securing a significant role in the playoffs, and the 2017 WJC earned him international praise and spotlight. By the 2017-18 season, it was impossible for him to shut out the buzz, the constant parade of scouts and journalists from across the Atlantic, at his Frolunda games. "Fallin’ for Dahlin" had officially begun among the basement-dwelling NHL teams, with him projected a year out as the top 2018 draft pick ahead of Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina and Brady Tkachuk. (Side note: "Fallin’ for Dahlin" doesn’t work as a rhyme, people. As he clarifies, his last name is pronounced Dah-LEEN.)

You’ve likely heard all the effusive sound bites by now. TSN’s Ray Ferraro said Dahlin “defends like Lidstrom and skates like Karlsson.” But what, exactly, gives Dahlin a skyscraper-high ceiling?

The league-wide scouting reports suggest Dahlin combines the mobility and puck skills of today’s elite offensive defensemen with the hard-nosed physicality of the top minute-munchers. His fleet-footed rushes bring fans to their feet, but he’s also 6-foot-2 with a 181-pound frame that will swell into the 200s when he finishes growing and adds muscle. He’s built for all situations.

“I don’t see him as an Erik Karlsson-type defender, but I see him more like a Victor Hedman,” Monten said. “More like a ‘D’ that can play on your power play, that can score points, he can move the puck for you, but he can also defend, he can play a physical game, he can play a shutdown role.”

Dahlin believes his hockey sense is his strongest trait, as does the coach who sees him more than anyone year-round: Frolunda’s Roger Ronnberg.

“The greatest ability on the ice is the way he reads the game,” Ronnberg said. “He looks like he’s playing in slo-mo. He always has time to make reads and smart plays, and he is getting better in every area. He is one of the best kids I have ever had in terms of being coachable. He is a fast learner.”

Dahlin also contradicts the stereotype of Europe-based defensemen needing time to adjust to the North American-sized ice surface, which forces them to make much quicker decisions as forecheckers harass them in the corners. The last 18-year-old rearguard to jump from playing in a Euro league directly to the NHL in his draft year was Aki Berg 23 years ago, unless you count Oliver Kylington getting one game in 2015-16. Luca Sbisa, Rostislav Klesla, Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Sergachev fast-tracked to the NHL at 18 but played their draft years in major junior. Hedman went right to the NHL but was 19. As Ronnberg explained, Dahlin is set to buck the trend of learning curves for Euro-league imports because he does his best work in tight spaces. He excels in the more claustrophobic drills at practice and in any games Frolunda plays on smaller ice surfaces because he makes smart decisions so much faster than the average player.

No prospect is perfect, though, and that includes Dahlin. He must thicken his core if he wants to muscle bruisers like Tom Wilson off pucks. Dahlin lists his shot as the skill that needs the most development. And Monten sees room for improvement in Dahlin’s foot speed when transitioning rapidly from backward to forward, a trick particularly important come playoff time when the pace of an opposing team’s attack is especially fast and ferocious. But the consensus from scouts is that criticisms like those qualify as nitpicking. Dahlin is more mature, physically and mentally, than any defense prospect to arrive in the NHL since Ekblad at the very least. Dahlin projects as someone who can play up to 25 minutes a night as a rookie while logging significant minutes on both special-team units. He’ll make the lucky team that picks him immediately better. He has more developing to do, but he’s no project.

Dahlin will improve his new team’s playoff odds, loudly on the scoresheet but silently in the dressing room. He shows more charisma on the ice than off it, similar to what we’ve seen from recent first overall picks Matthews and Connor McDavid. Ronnberg said Dahlin “hasn’t found his personality yet” given he’s just a teenager and generally lets the Frolunda veterans, like captain Joel Lundqvist, do the talking. Dahlin hasn’t been the rah-rah guy on Team Sweden, either.

"He’s going to be the quiet guy,” Monten said. “He’s humble, he’s quiet, but he prepares. He’s one of the first guys to come in in the morning and one of the last guys to leave. He’s going to grab the pucks for practices. It doesn’t matter if he gets picked No. 1 or not. He’s going to fit in. He’s going to try and earn respect from his teammates by showing work ethic, playing hard for his team, blocking shots, making good plays for his team.”

So what, then, is a fair expectation for Dahlin in 2018-19? The Calder Trophy? The greatest rookie year by a defenseman this millennium? It’s tough to marry hype with realistic expectations. Given the overwhelming praise for Dahlin’s game, 40 points doesn’t sound like asking too much, does it? And yet, amazingly, only two rookie defensemen in NHL history have topped 40 points after starting a season 18 years old: Hall of Famers Phil Housley (66) and Bobby Orr (41). Ekblad’s epic freshman campaign in 2013-14 yielded 39 points. Only five teenaged defensemen have won the Calder Trophy – Orr, Ekblad, Ray Bourque, Berard and Tyler Myers, and only Orr and Ekblad did it in their age-18 seasons. So expecting or demanding the Calder out of Dahlin is asking him to be, well, legendary in Year 1. Then again, every bit of analysis from those scouting and coaching him thus far says he will be just that.

As one scout suggests, Dahlin’s landing spot will play a significant role in his debut output. If he’s paired with a defensively responsible partner, he can freewheel with those trademark mad dashes. But because of Dahlin’s two-way acumen, he may be asked to do more in his own end, lowering his offensive ceiling in Year 1, and that’s probably a fair expectation given his all-but-confirmed destination: the Buffalo Sabres, who have the top pick for the first time since nabbing Pierre Turgeon in 1987.

Yes, Dahlin should get a chance to make an instant impact offensively. The Sabres have one of the all-time best puck-moving blueliners for a head coach in Housley, after all. They struggled to get goals from the back end this season, and GM Jason Botterill indicated after winning the draft lottery that Dahlin was a great fit given Buffalo wants its defensemen jumping up in the play more. In Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres have a decent core of offensively dangerous players with which they can mix Dahlin to form an exciting No. 1 power play unit. And Ristolainen’s deployment suggests Dahlin will lead all rookies in ice time next season. Ristolainen has been given a ton of responsibility – too much, even – to start his NHL career. He averages more than 24 minutes a game for his career, which is just five seasons old, and he ranks in the top five in the NHL over the past three seasons in ice time with an average of 26:04. It thus stands to reason Dahlin won’t be coddled as a rookie.

At the same time, the Sabres need him for more than just his dynamic scoring ability. Over the past five seasons they’ve finished 25th, 29th, 16th, 21st and 29th in goals against. Only one team has surrendered more shots on goal than Buffalo over that period. So if Dahlin is half Karlsson and half Hedman, the Sabres probably need the Hedman side – the lockdown defender – more than anything in Year 1.

Whatever Buffalo asks of Dahlin, none of the conjecture seems to faze him. He instead uses it as kindling. He says he can’t wait for the opportunity to go up against the best players in the world.

Are his nerves really that steely? If McDavid zooms into his zone, will Dahlin really think, time to take him out, and not, Oh, s--t?

“I would think both things,” said Dahlin with a hearty laugh. “ ‘Oh s--t, he’s coming,’ and then I would think, ‘I have to get him.’ ”

That’s Dahlin. Relative to his position and the social media-dominated era he plays in, he faces unprecedented expectations, and he welcomes them with a giggle. Sure things don’t exist in sports, as Nail Yakupov, Patrik Stefan and Alexandre Daigle can attest, but Dahlin is as close as it gets. He has the demo reel, the glowing reviews, the numbers, the body and, perhaps most of all, the mentality to succeed. He can’t wait for his skate blades to touch NHL ice. Neither can we.


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