'He doesn't need to be the savior', but expectations high for Sabres' top overall pick Rasmus Dahlin

Rasmus Dahlin (Getty Images)

The hype surrounding Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo is near off the charts. But even as the Sabres believe they selected a generational talent in Dahlin with the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft last Friday, team general manager Jason Botterill issued a warning ahead of prospect development camp this week.

“He doesn’t need to be the savior,” Botterill said in trying to temper expectations on the 18-year-old defenseman. 

“He can be part of this group (with Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen) and they can grow together.”

That, of course, is the right way for a hockey team and its lead executive to assess the arrival of such a talented youngster. However, expectations from the fan base on Dahlin already surpass those placed on Eichel, the dynamic forward who was selected second overall in 2015.

“That’s because the Sabres won the draft lottery and (Dahlin) was the first overall pick — there’s something different, special about being No. 1,” explained Sabres alum Martin Biron, who spent parts of nine seasons tending goal for the team and now hosts a local radio talk show in Buffalo with former Sabres Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet.

“For two years now, we all knew (Dahlin) would go No. 1 overall, then he played in the World Juniors in Buffalo, then the Sabres won the lottery. It’s all been building and makes it better (in Buffalo) the past two months than it was the entire season. Everyone jumps into the wave of emotion. It impacts the community, impacts the city. That’s because he is a special player, but because he is No. 1 overall, too.”

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Heck, it impacted Biron, Peters and Rivet, too. Their show, The Instigators, aired live from Dallas the day of the draft’s first round last week, and the extended five-hour program was all Dahlin, all the time. In fact, it’s been that way for months, even including a Daily Dose of Dahlin featuring tidbits about the teenaged Swede on every show since the Sabres won the opportunity to select first overall.

“Then the hypothetical becomes reality — he puts on the jersey, comes to Buffalo — that carries a lot of weight,” offered Biron. “They’ve come close to winning the lottery before, just missed out on Connor McDavid (in 2015), but now it’s finally No. 1 overall. As soon as they flipped the card over, social media, the fans, went nuts. It is just so special.”

As for Dahlin, he’s aware of all the fuss made on his behalf in Buffalo. He chooses to ignore it.

“I actually do not think that way,”  explained Dahlin, who was named the tournament’s top defenseman as Sweden won a silver medal at the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo. “I’m so motivated to win hockey games, and I’ll bring everything I can to this team. Try to win hockey games, that’s what I think about.”

In fact, Dahlin sounded more like the teenager he is than a star carrying his woebegone Sabres team out of the cellar at his introductory press conference on Monday. 

“This is the best time of my life,” explained Dahlin when asked why he showed up for Day Two of the draft Saturday wearing his new Sabres jersey.

“Why don’t be proud and have the jersey on? I know how big this is for me. I am super excited and super proud.”

There will be adjustments for Dahlin to make, and the path to stardom will not be completely smooth, of course. Botterill already pointed out that the young defenseman will need to learn how quick the NHL game is, how to beat aggressive forechecks and the need to get stronger in order to win battles in front of his own net.

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And that’s not all, according to Dahlin.

“Smaller ice, a new country and all that stuff, and it’s the NHL,” he said. “It’s probably going to take a few games to get comfortable out there. I’m going to work hard to play my best hockey.”

Expect plenty of Buffalo-sized expectations for the talented top pick and his team, which did not qualify for the last seven Stanley Cup playoffs and had only 25 wins and 62 points last season, no matter how much Botterill tries to keep things in perspective.

“There is a huge build up…so, yeah, you have to be careful about the pressure and expectations that are put on a young man.

“But we’re very proud of bringing Rasmus into our organization.”