Rasmus Dahlin has been playing nearly half of the game. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Injuries force Sabres’ Rasmus Dahlin to handle more responsibility, ice time

BUFFALO – Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s instincts tell him to get after it, not to settle for the simplest play.

After all, the Swede possesses the talent to make dazzling moves and take over the ice.

“When he touches the puck, he tries to go, he tries to make the ideal play happen and he competes and fights to make the ideal play happen on each puck touch,” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Tuesday’s practice in KeyBank Center.

So as Dahlin, 23, has been earning more ice time, he has learned he must control his aggressiveness and pick his spots. If you’re getting about 30 shifts and playing nearly half of the game, you can’t run yourself ragged.

Having led the Sabres in ice time for the last three seasons, he’s used to gobbling up about 24 or 25 minutes each game. But over the past month, he has graduated to a new level.

Injuries to defensemen Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson, who’s out for the season, have created a massive hole on Buffalo’s blue line. They play a combined 45 minutes each game.

Naturally, to fill some of that void, the Sabres have heaped more on Dahlin, their representative in the last three NHL All-Star Games.

Over the last 10 games since Jan. 20, he has averaged an NHL-high 27 minutes, 42 seconds per outing. The next-closest player during that stretch, Minnesota Wild rookie defenseman Brock Faber, has averaged 49 fewer seconds.

In Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 overtime win in Minnesota, Dahlin skated a career-high 30 minutes, 47 seconds. He has played at least 28 minutes in five of the last six contests.

“All you ask for is ice time, and when you get it, you got to do as much as you can for it,” said Dahlin, whose Sabres open a two-game road trip tonight against the Montreal Canadiens.

Part of doing as much as he can means he reading each situation and often showcasing a calmer, smarter style. Take what’s there.

Sabres coach Don Granato said sometimes the ideal play might be trying to weave through three defenders. The better move, however, could be simply moving the puck and seeing if there’s another opportunity that would conserve his energy.

“You got to keep it simple when you have to,” said Dahlin, who has averaged 25 minutes, 24 seconds over his 54 games this season. “You can’t force plays. You got to take what’s given, and when the chances come, you really got to be sharp.”

Granato and his staff carefully manage the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Dahlin’s workload so he stays fresh and can quickly jump back over the boards.

“When he comes off the ice, if he’s exerted too much energy on the shift he just finished, you need a longer rest time,” Granato said.

Dahlin usually plays demanding minutes against the opponent’s top threats. Now, having lost Power and Samuelsson, he has extra duty facing other scoring lines.

The Sabres, of course, also want him to play with their top players.

“We’re just using him in so many different scenarios that I think the biggest thing is don’t overexert yourself on the shift that you have, because we’re watching how much recovery time you need when you get back,” Granato said.

Following Monday’s practice, Dahlin said he could feel that he had played 29 minutes, 18 seconds in Monday afternoon’s 4-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

So how does he recover?

“You got to do everything times two,” he said. “You got to recover better, you got to eat better, you got to sleep better, which I’m trying to do right now. And so far, my body feels good.”

Dahlin also feels good alongside his defense partner, Henri Jokiharju. The Finn has been playing more than ever. On Monday, he skated a career-high 27 minutes, 29 seconds. On Saturday, he scored the overtime winner.

“You feed off of that confidence,” Jokiharju said of the coaching staff’s belief in him.

Earlier this season, Jokiharju, 24, sat out as a healthy scratch. As he struggled, Granato said the coaches told him he’s “a much better player and we need you to be a much better player.”

“We felt we needed to challenge him, and part of challenging him was healthy scratching him to get him to fight for more because his ability far exceeded his impact is probably the easiest way to say it,” Granato said. “We knew we had a guy with a lot more ability than we were seeing with impact.”

Granato said the 6-foot, 200-pound Jokiharju wasn’t performing poorly, they just needed him to be better. Over the past several weeks, he has become more decisive and better at killing plays.

“He’s playing the best hockey that he’s played in the time that I’ve seen him in the National Hockey League, and that dates back to when we were both in Chicago with the Blackhawks together (in 2018-19).”

Dahlin said: “We all know what type of player he can be. When he gets the opportunity and when he has confidence, he’s so good.”

Granato said Sabres winger Victor Olofsson is sick and wouldn’t accompany the team to Montreal.

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