BUFFALO – Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin sees something special in the Sabres’ latest rebuild. The roster upheaval created an opportunity for their young core players to transform the team.
Jake McCabe, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Linus Ullmark – four pieces of the old nucleus – are gone. Jack Eichel will likely be the next to leave.
So Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt and some other Sabres in their early 20s now form the team’s foundation.
“We kind of have a brand new everything,” Dahlin said Friday. “We can build something new here, (a) new culture. We can change a couple (things). But the main thing is we can, for sure, change the culture here. That’s what I’m most excited for.”
That culture, of course, has been rotten. The Sabres, having finished dead last four times in eight years, including last season, are the NHL’s laughingstock.
But Dahlin, 21, likes what general manager Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato are building.
“We have something good going on here,” said Dahlin, the first overall pick in 2018.
Part of that belief comes from how close the Sabres’ young core has grown.
“We hang out all the time off the ice,” Dahlin said inside KeyBank Center. “We are a tight group and we know what we expect from each other. And everyone’s talking about the same stuff. Like, we really want to turn this around and we really want to be a winning team.
“And you see Cozens, you see Casey, Henri (Jokiharju). All of us come from winning cultures. So I think if everything goes well, we can turn it around, for sure.”
Dahlin spoke confidently following Friday’s morning session of training camp, his first practice this season. Clearly, he keeps growing more comfortable and maturing.
The Swede, who signed a three-year, $18 million contract earlier this week, understands he has entered a new phase of his career.
He’s beginning his fourth NHL season, meaning he’s no longer a neophyte. When McCabe and Ristolainen left, he became the Sabres’ longest-tenured defenseman.
“First three years I was kind of here to see and learn,” Dahlin said. “And now that’s done. I need to take more responsibility in the locker room and on the ice, too. I want to be more a leader. I want to be a guy you can trust every single second I’m at the rink. …
“I’m not a young talent anymore. I got to step up and show what I can do.”
At times during his 197-game career, Dahlin has performed dynamically, taking over games with his slick puck-moving skills. However, for stretches – most notably early last season – he has struggled so badly he could’ve been scratched.
“There’s a lot of baggage and extra challenge that comes with being a phenom,” Granato said. “A lot of times it pulls you out of the moment. It pulls you out of being yourself. You feel like you have to live up to something. We’ve tried to not distance him from trying to live up to something.
“‘Let’s find out what you are. We think we’re going to like what you are, but sometimes you don’t even give yourself that chance to be who you are because you’re in the light and it’s bright on you.’”
After Granato took over as interim coach March 17, Dahlin settled down and started showcasing a calmer, more composed style while utilizing his speed and embracing the physical side. His confidence quickly ballooned.
“It was huge,” Dahlin said of ending last season on a high note. “I mean, this year I can start on the right page. I can start playing my own game and build on that the whole year. I think that’s going to be the good thing.”
Dahlin said he was “super excited” when the Sabres named Granato the permanent coach.
The Sabres will likely rely on Dahlin more than ever. He averaged a career-high 21 minutes, 36 seconds of ice time over 56 games last season. The number could swell to around 25 minutes this year.
“I’ve done a little bit more of conditioning this summer to be able to play more minutes,” Dahlin said. “So if everything goes well, I’m aware that I can be that guy and I’m ready for it.”
Notes: Center Jack Quinn, the eighth overall pick last year, practiced Friday at LECOM Harborcenter after missing Thursday’s opening session. The Sabres have been trying to ease Quinn into the new season after he underwent hernia surgery in April. … Dahlin said he texted Owen Power after the Sabres drafted the defenseman first overall July 23. “He’s going to fit this team very well,” Dahlin said. “Yeah, as soon as he got drafted I got some thoughts of what he’s going through.” Power returned to Michigan for his sophomore season. … Winger Kyle Okposo (non-COVID illness) did not practice Friday.