DALLAS – For 55 days, since the Buffalo Sabres won the right to draft him first overall, Rasmus Dahlin knew the moment was coming. Still, when perhaps the best defense prospect in a generation finally put on his Blue and Gold jersey for the first time, he seemed overwhelmed by the experience.
“It’s amazing,” a smiling Dahlin, 18, told a hoard of reporters Friday after becoming the third player taken first overall in Sabres history at the NHL Draft. “Like, finally putting on a Buffalo Sabres jersey. I can’t wait to get everything started.”
Dahlin endured a long wait to join the Sabres. He said he felt nervous in the moments before general manager Jason Botterill called his name inside American Airlines Center.
“You can’t really plan anything, but finally today I can plan my (future),” Dahlin said. “I love to call my Buffalo new town.”
Drafting Dahlin instantly transforms a once-proud team that has become a laughingstock in recent seasons. For the next 10 or even 15 years, the Sabres will likely possess one of the NHL’s top defensemen.
Dahlin, however, believes the pressure of being a franchise savior won’t faze him.
“I like to play hockey,” he said. “Why put pressure on you when can play the game because you love it?”
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Dahlin refused to acknowledge the Sabres would take him. But he clearly began preparing for his new life.
“I’ve been to outside the city and inside, went to some restaurants,” he said. “It’s not the biggest city (Trollhättan, Sweden). But I came from a small city, so I’m used to that size. So it’s amazing.”
Botterill said: “In our conversations with him, he’s been extremely passionate about coming to Buffalo, hearing things about Buffalo.”
Sabres fans already love Dahlin. Their excitement has been evident for weeks.
Shortly before the draft started, some Sabres fans approached Dahlin in the stands, something the youngster appreciated.
“They’re great fans,” he said. “I’ve heard so many great things about them, that they love hockey in that city.”
Botterill understands Friday was special day for Buffalo fans.
“I’m well aware of the passion level that our fans have,” he said. “As a player I felt it, as an executive on another team I still felt it coming in to Buffalo. And I saw it this year. … We’re well aware we have a lot of work to be done here in Buffalo and it’s been tough to be a Buffalo Sabres fan. But today’s not a day to look back on the past.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley probably felt like a fan Friday. The Hall of Fame defenseman spoke to Dahlin more than anyone on the draft stage. Minutes later, Housley posted a selfie of the two smiling together.
Dahlin said Housley congratulated him.
“I was telling him I was super excited and I can’t wait,” said Dahlin, who believes he can jump into the NHL immediately.
Housley, of course, wants to showcase the fast style that helped him enjoy so much success as an assistant with the Nashville Predators. With the slick Dahlin now in his arsenal and All-Star center Jack Eichel already in the fold, Housley has two huge pieces.
“It’s a fun style to play, but if he was saying that we would play a slow game, I would do that,” Dahlin said.
For Botterill, Dahlin’s skill – “You’re very impressed with his hockey sense, his speed, his puck skills,” the GM said – is just one part of what makes him special.
Botterill said Dahlin is “very analytical and a student of the game.” He possesses confidence, yet he knows he can improve.
“I was very impressed with his self-assessment and what he has to improve on and just the focus he has,” Botterill said.
Naturally, the Sabres want to temper expectations for Dahlin. They expect him to contribute. Still, they want to ease him into the lineup and surround him with better talent.
“You can’t expect an 18-year-old to play against other teams’ top lines or in pressure situations all the time,” Botterill said. “That’s why it’s so important … to have people like (Zach) Bogosian, people like Jake McCabe healthy.”
Dahlin is just the second Swede drafted first overall, joining Hall of Fame center Mats Sundin, who was taken by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989.
“That’s nice, really many emotions in my body right now,” Dahlin said. “I’m proud of myself.”
The Sabres also selected Hall of Fame center Gilbert Perreault first overall in 1970 and center Pierre Turgeon in 1987.