From Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Victor Hedman to Erik Karlsson, Sweden is developing world-class talent on the blue line like never before. Coming from a nation that has given us the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Borje Salming in the past, in recent years the Scandinavian country has been a production line churning out some of the best at this position in the NHL.
In 2017, Erik Brannstrom and Timothy Liljegren were chosen 15th and 17th overall at the NHL Draft as the only two Swedish defenders taken in the first round. In 2018, though, a Swedish blueliner will likely be the first player off the board.
Rasmus Dahlin is a flashy 18-year-old who has already played two years in Sweden’s top league among men, was a notable piece of Sweden’s entry at the 2017 WJC when he was still just 16, and a leader on this year’s entry — he even was selected for Sweden’s Olympic team, playing two games. Dahlin is an exciting young talent who has the potential to transform the future of the Buffalo Sabres.
Here is more information on Dahlin.
Team: Frolunda (SHL)
From: Trollhättan, Sweden
Weight: 187 pounds
HE IS EXPECTED TO BE PICKED FIRST OVERALL BY THE BUFFALO SABRES
Unlike a couple years ago when they finished last and and missed out on Connor McDavid with a loss at the draft lottery, the Buffalo Sabres had their ping pong ball combination picked this time, and will add Dahlin’s tremendous talent to a questionable blue line.
“He’s a defenceman 31 teams in the NHL want,” GM Jason Botterill said at the lottery. “Ability to jump up on the rush, create…This is exciting. For the players too, they want to play with other skilled players. This is a good day.”
Here is a slow-mo video of the final, winning No. 6 ball drawn in the NHL lottery, giving the Sabres the win. Several other balls were poised to attack but stood around and watched as 6 cut through them like Rasmus Dahlin on an end-to-end rush. pic.twitter.com/aE7UA25Z1C
— Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) May 2, 2018
The Sabres have missed the playoffs seven years in a row, which has led to a cycle of losing that’s been hard to dig out of, but at the very least it’s allowed the team to take some very talented players in the draft.
Jack Eichel remains the centre of the offence up front and last year’s No. 8 overall pick, Casey Mittelstadt, also appears just about ready for his own jump to the NHL and will add another centre. Alexander Nylander is still a highly touted prospect, though he’s struggled to stand out in two AHL seasons so his arrival in the NHL may not be imminent. Third-rounder Cliff Pu has been extremely productive in the OHL since being drafted and there’s still hope second overall pick Sam Reinhart will eventually reach his potential after a 50-point season.
But over the past four drafts the Sabres have taken just one defenceman in the first two rounds, Brendan Guhle. Rasmus Ristolainen was the last defenceman the team took in Round 1, so it’s an area the rebuilding Sabres desperately need to add on to.
This is why Dahlin is the perfect pick up. An electrifying talent who often looks like a forward with the way he skates with the puck, Dahlin could transform the Sabres’ outlook. There have been no shortage of highlights from him this season.
“He’s a smart, two-way defenceman; an excellent skater and puck-handler,” said Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting. “He loves to join the rush and does not shy away from the physical part of the game. He needs to learn to play it more simple, and he will.
If Dahlin does up going first overall as expected, he’d be the second Swede to do so and the first since Mats Sundin in 1989. And Dahlin will play for head coach Phil Housley, who holds the Sabres’ record for most points scored by an 18-year-old defenceman at 66.
HIS COMBINE PERFORMANCE WASN’T GREAT, BUT DON’T WORRY ABOUT THAT
If you look at his combine results, Dahlin was a little underwhelming. He didn’t finish in the top 10 of any drill and anyone expecting a dominating performance from him was sorely disappointed.
But remember, he’s still just an 18-year-old kid developing into his body and none of the drills captured on-ice performance.
“If you look at him, you’ve seen him just standing there, he’s a rake,” Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino said on Hockey Central at Noon. “So the one thing you can understand about him, he’s going to do the work that he has to do to get bigger and stronger. His mom’s feeding him up a storm at home because he knows he has to put on weight. I’m sure what’s going to happen here before too long is they’ll get together with his advisors, they’ll get together with Buffalo once that becomes official and they’ll figure out a way to maximize his summer in terms of his strength and conditioning.”
You can never read too much into the combine results when projecting a player’s on-ice performance. Back in 2008, Zach Bogosian dominated the combine and Erik Karlsson struggled — who would you rather have today? The more important thing to look at is how he did on the ice…
DAHLIN HAD A STELLAR SEASON IN THE SWEDISH LEAGUE
After spending half a year in the SHL in 2016-17, Dahlin graduated to full-time duty this season and promptly posted 20 points in 41 games. Those numbers may not jump off the page initially, but in context they’re quite incredible.
Dahlin’s production ranked first among any player under the age of 22 in the SHL — and he just turned 18 in April. Historically, Dahlin’s season produced the third-most points for any under-19 blueliner in the history of the SHL, trailing only Victor Hedman and tied with Tomas Jonsson, who did it in fewer games, per eliteprospects.com.
How does he compare to some of these other all-time Swedish defencemen? Nicklas Lidstrom has said Dahlin is further along at this age than he was, as did Erik Karlsson.
GREAT SUCCESS PLAYING AGAINST OLDER PLAYERS
The first time Dahlin got the attention of mainstream hockey fans was the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship more than a year ago. He played for Team Sweden as a 16-year-old and became the youngest player to ever suit up for his country at the event. Overall, Dahlin was the 15th defenceman from any nation to play in the WJC at 16 years old, joining the likes of Roman Josi, Jay Bouwmeester and Brian Leetch.
Jacob Larsson, the 27th overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, played with Dahlin in Frolunda and at that WJC. Larsson was a bigger piece of Sweden’s junior entry as a 19-year-old than Dahlin was at the time, but he had very high praise for the youngster.
“He’s pretty much been the same player with Frolunda as he is here,” Larsson told the Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon during the WJC. “He’s got some sick moves when he’s skating up with the puck – he’s going to be really, really good. I mean, he’s already a good player.”
Making his selection to that team more impressive was who he beat out for a spot. At the time, Timothy Liljegren was considered a lock to go in the top three at the NHL Draft, but he wasn’t chosen after a bout with mono. This suggested that if Dahlin were eligible for the 2017 draft, he still would have been a top pick.
Dahlin returned at the 2018 WJC and, as expected, played a much bigger role with six assists in seven games and going over 20 minutes played each night. He was voted to the media’s tournament all-star team.
— Jordie (@BarstoolJordie) January 4, 2018
Later this season Dahlin even got the call to represent Sweden at the Olympics, an incredible achievement for a player who was still just 17 years old at the time.
It was disappointing for followers to find out that he was going to be used in a limited role though. Dahlin was scratched more often than not and got into just two games, averaging only a couple minutes out each time. He still managed to get on the score sheet with an assist.
Dahlin is coming out of a Frolunda program that has graduated the likes of Karlsson and Henrik Lundqvist to the NHL.
“I’ve never seen a player like him in that you give him a couple of chances and shifts at a higher level and he can easily adapt to that level,” Sweden national junior team coach Tomas Monten told NHL.com. “He has a certain way of pushing his game against better players and at higher speeds. He’s skilled and talented and a defenceman we can have a lot of use for. A couple years down the road, for sure, he’s going to be a good player.”
HIS FAVOURITE PLAYER? YOU GUESSED IT: ERIK KARLSSON
Just as any big Canadian defenceman draws comparisons to Chris Pronger, as a swift-skating, puck-moving Swedish defenceman, Dahlin is reminding many people of Karlsson, who so happens to be Dahlin’s favourite player.
The two are coming out of the same Frolunda program and scouts are saying Dahlin is much farther ahead of Karlsson at the same age. Maybe that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, though, since Dahlin is gunning for the top spot in his draft while Karlsson went 15th overall in 2008.
Dahlin is a couple of inches taller than Karlsson and so has the bigger frame to grow into. And while his skating may not end up being as explosive as Karlsson’s, the fluidity of his stride is drawing comparisons to perhaps the best-ever Swedish defenceman, Nicklas Lidstrom. And he looks to have the hands to match both of those greats.
(Video via HockeyWebCast)
What does the last Swede to be taken first overall in the NHL Draft have to say about these comparisons?
“You’re a kid. I was in the same position coming over and I was far away from being developed physically to play against the best players in the league,” Mats Sundin said recently during an appearance on Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup. “We have to be fair. Give Rasmus — just like Lidstrom — you give him two, three years in the National Hockey League, he’s going to be a superstar in the league for many years.”