Swedish youngster Dahlin turns heads in first WJC game

Sweden's Rasmus Dahlin (8) celebrates with teammates after scoring. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — The full facial shield represents something different at the world junior hockey championship.

There may be the odd player wearing one due to injury, but for the most part it’s sported by the few participating in the tournament before turning 18 – like Sweden’s 16-year-old defenceman Rasmus Dahlin.

The full shield will make him easier to identify, as he’s the only player wearing one on this Swedish side. That’s a good thing, because everyone will want to watch him when they see what he can do.

Time will tell if the six-foot-one, 165-pound lefty, who is the youngest blue-liner to ever dress for Sweden and just the 15th from any country to participate as a 16-year-old in the WJC, will follow in the footsteps of predecessors Brian Leetch, Jay Bouwmeester, Roman Josi and Olli Maatta.

Those guys went on to build sterling international resumes and lasting NHL careers, and it looks like a solid bet Dahlin will do the same.

The presumptive top pick in 2018 has been billed in Sweden as the next Erik Karlsson, as he’s been making waves in his first professional season in the SHL for Karlsson’s old Frolunda Indians.

“When I was growing up Peter Forsberg was my favourite,” said Dahlin after Sweden’s tournament-opening 6-1 win over Denmark. “Now he’s stopped playing hockey, so it’s Erik Karlsson.”

We see how Dahlin is similar to Karlsson, but watching the Trollhattan native on Monday we couldn’t help but see flashes of the country’s best defenceman of all time in Nicklas Lidstrom.

Maybe it was in the way he carried himself—confidently bordering on casually—that brought about visions of the great No. 5, who played his entire NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings. It certainly had something to do with the way he positioned himself, the way he managed the puck and in the way he controlled play through only 8:50 of ice time spread over 15 shifts in Monday’s game.

“He’s really talented,” remarked Danish coach Olaf Eller. “He skates exceptionally well, moves the puck efficiently, and he’s going to be great. He’s already great.”

There was evidence on Dhalin’s first shift, which came in the sixth minute of play.

He spent most of it pivoting around the defensive zone until the puck found his stick and left it in a split second, as he pushed a perfect breakout pass up the ice and made his way to the bench.

His second shift, which came nearly four minutes later, featured heady neutral-zone play from the kid, a whole lot of movement, and smooth transition to offence brought about by two more of his tape-to-tape passes.

On his fourth shift, Dahlin snapped a puck from the blue-line that generated a perfect rebound for forward Joel Eriksson.

The assist vaulted him to 35th in scoring among the 57 16-year-olds to have played in this tournament. And his goal in the second—a perfect wrist shot through traffic, which landed in the top half of the net—bumped him up to 26th.

“His biggest asset is he can easily adapt to playing at a higher tempo and a higher-paced game than he’s meant to,” said Swedish coach Tomas Monten. “He’s really talented and offensively skilled, so he can change the game for us.”

If Monday’s performance was a harbinger of things to come, Dahlin will climb that scoring list quickly.

Don’t expect him to catch Wayne Gretzky, who scored 17 points in six games for Canada at the 1978 tournament, but after watching one shift in the second period over which he had a scintillating rush and went through three Danes before just missing the far side of goaltender Lasse Petersen’s net, it’s safe to say he’ll be turning heads.

It was his most Karlsson-esque moment of the game, but his impressive sprint to break up Denmark’s best rush of the game and his defensive stick checks in the third period gave us the biggest indications as to why he’s not out of place in this tournament full of 19-year-olds.

“We know that he can play and we know he can be an asset for us,” said Monten. “He was really good and he showed that maybe we should play him more next time.”

Look for the Swedish kid wearing a cage on his helmet when his team takes on Switzerland this Wednesday. You won’t want to miss him.

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