Prior to Mike Weber’s short stint overseas, the former Buffalo Sabres defenseman watched some highlights of a 17-year-old phenom he would be joining with Frolunda HC, a Swedish Hockey League team.
The whiz kid’s name? Rasmus Dahlin, the ultra-gifted defenseman the Sabres will select first overall after winning Saturday’s NHL Draft Lottery.
Weber, of course, knew Dahlin possessed an array of special talents. But seeing him up close was a different experience.
“The things he’s trying in practice, unbelievable, then he’ll go out and do them in a game,” Weber said Monday. “He was a kid, I was playing with him when he wasn’t even 18 yet. He was playing against men in the Swedish Elite League. I believe he’s a better skater than Karlsson.”
That’s Karlsson, as in Erik Karlsson, the slick Ottawa Senators superstar widely regarded regarded as the NHL’s best defenseman.
Not surprisingly, Weber and defenseman Matt Donovan, another teammate of Dahlin’s in Sweden, heaped praise on perhaps the best defense prospect in decades during phone conversations with the Times Herald.
“The way he handles the puck is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Donovan said.
Weber, a blue-collar defenseman before retiring earlier this year, knows Buffalo will love Dahlin.
“He’s a special, special player,” he said. “I’m extremely happy for the city of Buffalo and the organization that there’s a possibility he can come in there and he can be relied upon for a lot of years to help that team get to the next level.”
The 6-foot-2, 183-pound Dahlin thrived at a high level throughout the 2017-18 season playing against men. He was often partnered with Donovan, who spent most of the 2015-16 campaign with the Rochester Americans.
“It kind of speaks to itself, a 17-year-old playing with men in a men’s league, you know?” Donovan said. “I’m 10 years older than him and he’s so good. I think back at where I was at 17 years old, it’s unbelievable to think about where he is.”
As Weber said, Dahlin’s skating ranks among the best on the planet. His ability to simply move his hips and beat opponents – “He just kind of squeaks by you,” Weber said – helps him zoom all over the ice.
“He’s able to get back, back in the defensive zone, get back early for pucks, make one or two moves and beat a guy,” he said. “Then he’s such a strong skater he can just power up.”
Dahlin can do it all without looking at the ice.
“He plays a heads-up game,” Weber said. “He’s never down, he’s never looking at the puck, he’s always looking for the next option, next play. He moves the puck, he keeps moving up to join the rush.”
Dahlin also keeps wanting more. Weber said his maturity and “level of compete” wowed him. In fact, Dahlin often tried to do too much.
“Every shift he wanted to make something happen,” Weber said. “I tried to explain that’s an unrealistic goal. But … this kid wants it that bad. Like, he wants to be a difference-maker every time he touches the ice.
“With his skill set and his drive, it’s extremely exciting for Sabres fans.”
Donovan also played with Dahlin when the youngster occasionally joined Frolunda as a skinny 16-year-old.
“When I first started playing with him last year, he was a stick,” Donovan said.
But Dahlin transformed his body, packing on pounds.
“He’s grown so much in the last year, put on so much muscle,” Donovan said.
Dahlin has also grown off the ice. When two Canadian TV networks stopped by to interview Dahlin, Weber said Dahlin struggled with words but “he did a great job.”
“He’s trying to get better the way he speaks, the way he comes across,” Weber said. “He’s really just dedicated to … how he represents himself.”
Among men, Dahlin, who turned 18 years old April 13, represented himself well with Frolunda. Dahlin grew up in the organization and was just one dressing room down the hall before joining the big club.
“In the room, he’s a funny kid,” Weber said. “He’s a little bit quiet, but once you open him up, he’s really funny. There’s not one guy in the locker room that doesn’t love Ras. He’s great.”