BUFFALO – Rasmus Dahlin’s phone rang Saturday night and on the other end, Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams informed the budding superstar defenseman his eight-year, $88 million contract had been completed.
Dahlin, 23, remembers feeling a sense of relief – “I was so happy,” he said – and, well, not much else.
“I barely remember what I said,” a smiling Dahlin said following Monday’s practice in KeyBank Center, hours after the Sabres announced the biggest contract in franchise history. “It was like a blackout moment for me, I would say. I was just thankful.”
Hearing Dahlin’s excitement “was pretty special,” said Adams, who has tried to construct a roster of players who are passionate about playing for the Sabres.
“One of the things that’s incredibly rewarding about this job is when you hear it in the player’s voice,” Adams said. “The feeling you get when that happens is hard to kind of sum up but I think it’s pretty special. I think part of the reason it’s so special to me is I believe in these guys so much. It’s hard to get there sometimes, but then when you do and you agree and that phone call happens, it’s exciting.”
The extension will kick in for the 2024-25 season. Dahlin has one year remaining on his three-year, $18 million deal.
Only one defenseman, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Erik Karlsson, has a higher salary cap hit in 2024-25 – $11.5 million – than Dahlin’s $11 million. The Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty also has an $11 million hit.
Former captain Jack Eichel previously had the Sabres’ largest contract, an eight-year, $80 million deal.
Following months of negotiations, signing a max contract was a no-brainer for Dahlin, the first overall pick in 2018. Some young stars have been opting for shorter deals and the possibility of another huge payday in their 20s or early 30s.
But the Swede wanted to commit to Buffalo for as long as possible.
Dahlin arrived here five years ago having never lived in the United States. He quickly grew comfortable in the city and it began to feel like home.
“First of all, I grew up here as a man,” he said. “I came here as an 18-year-old, didn’t know much about anything. (I) learned the language, learned the culture. Then from the beginning I loved the city. So I’ve always wanted to be here for a long, long time, and now it’s going to happen.
“This is the city I love. You grew up in it and you have a special relationship to it, and every time my family comes to Buffalo they absolutely love it. My brother pretty much wants to live here, but he can’t. So it has a special place in my heart, for sure.”
Some of Dahlin’s teammates, of course, feel the same way. He’s the latest member of the Buffalo’s young core to sign an extension in the last 14 months, joining center Tage Thompson, defenseman Mattias Samuelsson and center Dylan Cozens.
“They’re super, super talented guys, but the people, but the guys, the persons, are such good people,” Dahlin said of the other youngsters who have inked extensions. “I love spending time with them and I love to go to war with them, too.”
Less than two years ago, the Sabres had one of the NHL’s lowest payrolls. Now, they have seven players with at least a $4 million salary cap hit this season, including three at more than $7 million. Winger Jeff Skinner has the highest hit at $9 million.
Right now, they have $8,826,430 of projected space under the $82.5 million cap, according to capfriendly.com. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters last week the cap could go up by $4.5 million in 2024-25.
The Sabres have other young players – they’ve been talking to defenseman Owen Power’s representatives – they must sign in the near future.
Dahlin’s deal helps them as they continue their complicated long-term planning, which Adams compared to assembling a puzzle.
“We obviously look at one, two, three years, but we’re also projecting out past that and we have to,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly where the salary cap is going to go, although most agents think it will just keep going up, but nobody knows. The more certainty you have of where your salaries are structured and how you’re building your team gives you more opportunity to either add from the outside, where it’s making a trade or signing a UFA, or internally, your own guys.
“If you’re not dealing with all the information, it can make it more challenging.”
The 6-foot-3, 204-pound Dahlin has already faced plenty of challenges in his short career. He made an immediate impact as a rookie in 2018-19, recording 44 points.
Still, in 2020-21, shortly before coach Don Granato replaced Ralph Krueger, he endured a marathon slump in which he lost his confidence and became a mess defensively. He compiled a ghastly, league-worst minus-36 rating as the Sabres finished dead last.
“What was easy for me to see when I did take over the team was that if we’re going to be successful, we have to get Rasmus going,” Granato said. “He was one of our if not the most talented guy when that transition happened.”
Dahlin, a fierce competitor who’s often hard on himself, slowly climbed out of his funk. He settled down after Granato, whose aggressive system plays to his strengths, took over. He looked more comfortable knowing he wouldn’t be benched for making a mistake. The Sabres also surrounded him with more talent.
By early in 2021-22, he regained his slick form. Over the last two years, he has developed into a stronger and more tenacious defender while earning a spot in two NHL All-Star Games.
Dahlin, an alternate captain, has also emerged as a prominent leader as Adams rebuilt the Sabres into one of the league’s youngest teams.
“I got more comfortable being around the same age,” said Dahlin, who also credits Granato and the coaching staff helping him morph into a leader. “That helped me a lot. But it’s not hard to be yourself in this locker room. Every single one in there is unbelievable persons.”
Last season, he ranked among the NHL’s elite defenders, scoring 15 goals and 73 points – the third-highest total by a defenseman in franchise history – while generating Norris Trophy talk.
“Rewarded for the work he’s put in, the person he is, the competitor that he is, and it’s pretty exciting, you’re investing in a guy that young,” Granato said. “The age he’s at is great for us. He’s gonna be young all the way through that contract.”
That standout campaign helped convince Adams that Dahlin deserved a generous long-term deal.
“Rasmus last year took a step in all areas of his game,” Adams said. “He’s clearly gifted offensively and as good as it gets in terms of the ability to run a power play and produce offensively. But what I saw, a maturation of him last year was him being physical, being really hard on opponents, being able to play against anybody, whether that’s a highly skilled line or a more physical line, just being able to settle in to being comfortable with the type of game that night might bring too. …
“(He) showed that he can really be that guy that can play 30 minutes a night if needed in every situation. That’s why we were certain and comfortable in where we were and where the negotiations were going.”
Dahlin’s contract has a base salary of $8 million in the first year and a $5 million signing bonus, according to capfriendly.com. In the second year, it has a $12 million base salary following by three seasons of $11 million and three of $10 million.
The deal also has a full no-movement clause beginning in 2025-26, according to capfriendly.com.
“My agents did all the work, so I wasn’t really involved in that,” Dahlin said of the clause. “But I just told them, this is the place I want to be and I want to have the longest contract as possible.”