Rasmus Dahlin is drawing comparisons to a pair of the best defenseman in the game today and to one of the best of all time.
The smooth-skating, play-making Swedish defenseman is expected to become just the third defenseman in the past 20 years to be picked No. 1 in the NHL draft .
“He is so far ahead of anyone else available,” said Joe McDonnell, the Dallas Stars’ director of amateur scouting. “We didn’t pay much attention to him this year because if we picked No. 1, we probably wouldn’t have jobs right now. And if we didn’t have the No. 1 pick, we knew we wouldn’t be able to draft him.”
Buffalo is expected to take Dahlin first overall on Friday night and it will be no surprise to some of the best in hockey.
Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom , a seven-time Norris Trophy winner, is one of the people who think Dahlin does compare to him, and some other current star defensemen who happen to be Swedes: Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman.
“He has a lot of tools,” Lidstrom, who has seen Dahlin play and has known of him for a few years, wrote in an email. “It will be interesting to see his development in the NHL where everyone is better/stronger/faster!”
Since St. Louis selected defenseman Erik Johnson first overall in 2006, the only blue-liner taken No. 1 was Aaron Ekblad in 2014. Ekblad started strong in Florida, becoming an All-Star in his first two seasons and winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, but appeared to take a step back the last two years. Johnson finished 12th in rookie of the year voting and has had a decent career with the Blues and Colorado Avalanche.
“This is one of those years where there’s a generational-type defenseman available and that’s not always the case,” Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said. “Everybody says this Dahlin is the best in a while on defense.”
The 18-year-old Dahlin has held his own against grown men over two seasons in a high-level European league. He had seven goals and 13 assists in 41 games this past season with Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League and was the junior player of the year. As the youngest player in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament, he had an assist in two games while suiting up sparingly for Sweden.
“I think I’m ready right now to play in the NHL,” Dahlin said.
Dahlin is set to become the second Swede taken No. 1 overall, joining Hall of Famer Mats Sundin, who was drafted by Quebec in 1989.
The Detroit Red Wings have leaned on scout Hakan Andersson for nearly three decades to decide who overseas has a chance to play in the world’s best hockey league. Andersson, who knows the hockey landscape as well as anyone overseas, said he has never seen a prospect quite like Dahlin.
“It’s not easy to put him in any category with anyone,” said Andersson, the director of European scouting for the Red Wings. “It’s hard to say someone is going to be better than Nicklas Lidstrom, but Dahlin has all the tools to be an unbelievable defenseman. He has Lidstrom’s poise with the puck. He can rush the puck up the ice like Karlsson. And, he’s big and aggressive enough to play the physical game and take people out like Hedman can.”
Still, Dahlin knows he has to improve his play when the other team has the puck and perhaps when he has to push players away from the crease. He is 6-2 but only 181 pounds.
“I need to get stronger,” Dahlin said.
Dahlin does have plenty of strengths on his side.
He can skate well, and effortlessly, in any direction while dangling the puck as if it is attached to his stick with soft hands while keeping his head up. With a left-handed shot, he can send a blur of a one-timer to the back of the net or snap off a wrist shot in a fraction of a second. He’s also a gifted passer.
“I look at him obviously like a Karlsson,” former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mike Weber, who played with Dahlin last season in Sweden. “He’s got the same type of skating ability, but I feel like he’s faster. He almost skates like a (Pavel) Datysuk. When you go in and try to hit Datysuk, he would open up his hips one way or the other and be able to spin off you and deke. .. I feel like Ras has that same kind of ability.”
And despite the hype, the young phenom has appeared humble behind the scenes and in front of scores of reporters.
“He really was able to handle that well,” said Weber, an assistant coach for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. “He’s mature beyond his years. And, the things he tries in practice, and the things he’ll try in a game to do, is pretty unbelievable.”
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
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