International Ice Hockey Federation

Dahlin, Sweden’s new darling

Dahlin, Sweden’s new darling

At 16, Frolunda D-man has talent to burn

Published 25.04.2017 09:17 GMT-4 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Dahlin, Sweden’s new darling
Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin skates with the puck during the 4-2 win against Switzerland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Rasmus Dahlin isn’t the most famous Rasmus in the hockey world. Not yet, anyway.

Unlike Finland’s Rasmus Ristolainen, the 16-year-old Swedish defenceman hasn’t led his nation to a World Junior gold medal, been a top-10 NHL draft pick, or suited up in the world’s top league.

But you never know. All those things could happen in less than two years. In fact, some predict Dahlin will be the number one overall pick in 2018.

How does the Juniorkronorna’s youngest player react to comparisons between himself and top Swedish NHL defencemen like Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes?

“It’s very fun to hear, but I don’t listen so much to that,” Dahlin said. “I focus on my own game from day to day and train hard.”

A long-time Swedish journalist counters with even more extraordinary names: “He is far ahead in his development, compared to where Borje Salming and Nicklas Lidstrom were at 16. Of course, there are no guarantees that he will continue to develop at this pace, but all the elements are there.”

One thing is certain: the Swedes develop more blue chip rearguards than any other European nation, and they wouldn’t dress this Frolunda Gothenburg product if they didn’t think he could help them win their first gold medal since 2012.

Slotted as coach Tomas Monten’s seventh defenceman, Dahlin made the most of his 8:50 in ice time in his first World Junior game. In the first period, the 186-cm, 75-kg rookie set up captain Joel Eriksson Ek beautifully for the 2-0 goal. Midway through the game, he controlled the puck inside the blue line with a 32-year-old’s composure before sailing a wrister past Danish goalie Lasse Petersen for a 5-0 lead.

“You can see that he’s a great player,” said forward Alexander Nylander, who led Sweden with nine points en route to fourth place last year. “He’s got great moves and plays really well on the blue line. So it’s a good help for our team. He’s very talented.”

Only one other player born in 2000 is taking part at this tournament: Switzerland's Nico Gross.

Four-time World Junior participant Magnus Paajarvi – the only other 16-year-old to represent Sweden at this tournament – was younger than Dahlin when he debuted on 26 December 2007. However, Paajarvi went pointless in that 4-3 win over Slovakia. So Dahlin’s two points in Game One set a new Swedish record. 

Dahlin didn't hit the scoresheet when Sweden beat Switzerland 4-2 on Wednesday, but his ice time jumped to 12:17, reflecting the coaches' increased confidence in him. He got slewfooted by Swiss captain Calvin Thurkauf at the end of the first period, but laughed it off. Firing three shots on goal, Dahlin created other opportunities with his excellent skating, puckhandling, and outlet passes.

The highest-scoring 16-year-old defenceman in World Junior history is Finland’s Reijo Ruotsalainen, who had two goals and three assists in seven games at the first official tournament in 1977. Dahlin might top that. “I think my offensive play is better than my defensive play,” he said.

Although this poised puck-mover is shining so far on Montreal ice, let’s dispel a couple of myths. He is no relation to Kjell Dahlin, who led the NHL in rookie scoring (71 points) and won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1986. Nor does he wear #26 with Frolunda as a tribute to Habs legend Mats Naslund. (He’s #8 here.)

However, Dahlin did become the first player born in 2000 to get an SHL goal when he opened the scoring in Frolunda’s 3-0 win over Karlskrona HK on 12 November. At 16 years, 6 months, and 21 days, that made him the second-youngest player to light the red lamp in the SHL. (World Junior teammate Oliver Kylington got the winner in Farjestad’s 2-1 victory over MoDo on 28 September 2013 at 16 years, 4 months, and nine days.)

This emphasis on youth is unusual in Swedish hockey, where the rule usually is “older is better.” Most of their NHLers benefit from extra SHL seasoning before jumping to North America, and hit their prime later. Lidstrom was 31 in 2001 when the Detroit Red Wings legend won his first of seven Norris Trophies. Current Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg peaked at 27 with his 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy. Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks won their back-to-back NHL scoring titles in 2010 and 2011 at 29 and 30 years old respectively. There are many other examples.

But look no further than Karlsson, Hedman, or Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog for recent counterexamples of Swedes who were able to make an impression in the NHL as teens. Dahlin could follow in their footsteps.

He’s part of an emerging wave of talent from Lidkoping, a picturesque town about 130 kilometres northeast of Gothenburg. Roger Ronnberg, the 45-year-old Frolunda head coach who oversaw the golden 2012 World Junior team, has been giving solid minutes to other Lidkoping boys as well, like 17-year-old left wing Oliver Fjellstrom, who just scored his first SHL goal, and 20-year-old centre Christoffer Ehn, a 2014 fourth-round pick of the Wings.

Now, facing the world's U20 best, Dahlin is reaping the benefits of that training. "I learn very much on this trip," he said. "I’m just having fun."

Stay tuned. If all goes well in Monrtreal and beyond, people won’t be comparing this kid to Rasmus Ristolainen. Or Erik Karlsson. They’ll be comparing other D-men to Rasmus Dahlin.


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