Sabres Fans Need To Be Patient With Dahlin’s Development

All-Star defenseman Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres has had quite the wild ride through his first four seasons in the NHL. After being taken first overall by Buffalo in the 2018 Draft, Dahlin played his rookie season at age 18 and recorded 44 points, the second-most ever by a defenseman of that age. His efforts earned him a Calder Trophy nomination, and the sky appeared to be his limit.

Since then, however, it’s been a story of ups and downs for the Swede, as he finds himself struggling to master all the aspects of the role of defensive anchor that the Sabres expect him to fulfill. There’s been a moment of discouragement to accompany every one of triumph, and it seems that fans are already running out of patience with him. But is this reasonable, and is it really all his fault?

In some ways, one could make an easy argument that it is. Dahlin has long had issues with his defensive responsibilities, and it would not be completely inaccurate to call him an on-ice liability. His +/- rating for this season is currently -14, and he’s a -70 for his career to this point. It’s tough to put a positive spin on that. Compounding the issue is that Sabres head coach Don Granato has paired him with fellow youngster Henri Jokiharju for the majority of this season. The two do not bring out the best in each other. Jokiharju is a -4 himself this season, and watching the duo on the ice has been painful at times. However, before labeling him a bust, there are a few other factors with Dahlin that must be taken into consideration.

The first is that a lack of consistency in coaching leadership early in his career has hurt Dahlin noticeably. The Sabres’ seemingly constant state of organizational upheaval has negatively affected a majority of its players over the years, but Dahlin might still be at the top of that list. Though he’s only been in the NHL for three seasons, he’s currently on his third coach and hasn’t yet had the same one for two full seasons in a row. Adjusting to three coach’s systems in as many years can’t be easy on any NHL player, let alone a 20-year-old still trying to find his footing.

Rasmus Dahlin Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres have been in a constant state of flux since Dahlin was drafted in 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As Dahlin entered the NHL, former Sabres star Phil Housley was as ideal a coach as could be, as he himself owns the NHL record for points by an 18-year-old defenseman (66 in 1982-83). And though Dahlin’s career did indeed get off to a promising start under the Hall of Famer, Buffalo fired Housley to save face after the team’s 2018-19 season went into a tailspin after a 10-game first half winning streak.

Successor Ralph Krueger seemed to make a positive impact in Dahlin’s sophomore campaign, as he was on pace to well-surpass his points total from the year prior. However, the 2019-20 season ended prematurely due to the outbreak of the COVID, and the Sabres wouldn’t take the ice again for almost a full year. Krueger’s intellectual approach to the team fell apart during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, and he was fired amidst an NHL record-tying 18 game losing streak. Before Dahlin’s third season had even completed, he was meeting his third bench boss, Don Granato.

The Sabres seem to have embraced Granato’s hard work and hustle mentality, and as a result, the team has hope for better days to come despite its 14-24-7 record this season. For the sake of the continued development of Dahlin and other talented young players like Dylan Cozens and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, it’s imperative that the Sabres stick it out with Granato. A team can’t be expected to improve and succeed when it reaches for the reset button as frequently as owners Terry and Kim Pegula like to do.

Dahlin’s How Old?

Fans also seem to forget that Dahlin is still quite young. Though two of his NHL seasons so far were cut short by COVID and can’t be considered full seasons, if Dahlin finishes 2021-22 healthy, he will have already logged four years of professional service by the time of his 22nd birthday this April. Not many players can boast something like that.

Carter Hutton, Artturi Lehkonen, Rasmus Dahlin,
Despite his struggles, Dahlin has the tools to be a true NHL star, if the Sabres can give him stability. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)

Defensemen sometimes take longer to develop than do forwards in the NHL. A great example is Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers, who is just now emerging as a star despite being in the league since 2014. Dahlin might not be where fans thought he would by now, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t fix his issues and grow into the elite threat he’s been touted as.

Despite his defensive woes, Dahlin’s offensive contributions to the Sabres have been impressive from the beginning. He’s eclipsed the 30 assist mark in both of his 40 point seasons and is on pace to do so yet again this season, as he currently leads Buffalo with 21 helpers. The Trollhattan, Sweden-native impressed in his first NHL All-Star Game this past weekend in Las Vegas, and he appears destined for many more.

Related: Rasmus Dahlin’s Journey From The Dog House to All-Star

Whether Sabres fans like it or not, Dahlin is now the face of the franchise after Buffalo shipped disgruntled superstar Jack Eichel to the Golden Knights this past October. And though the Sabres do possess an impressive amount of young talent for the future, Dahlin’s name still stands out. Many of his issues stem from circumstances beyond his control, and casting the promising youngster off at this point would be a big mistake.

Be patient, Buffalo. You might not see the player now that you’re going to see down the road.

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