Sabres’ Rasmus Dahlin vowed to be better defensively and is starting to do it


Staff member

In a few weeks, Rasmus Dahlin will participate in his third straight NHL All-Star Game. But the Buffalo Sabres’ No. 1 defenseman, who signed an eight-year contract extension worth $11 million per year before the season, has spent this week thinking about how he can have a more positive impact on his team.

Dahlin’s point totals this season are fine. He has 12 goals and 22 assists in 42 games. His 34 points are eighth most among NHL defensemen and his 12 goals are the most at his position. But other numbers are what he’s more focused on. For starters, the fact that the Sabres hit the midway point of the season on a 76-point pace and on the outside looking in at the playoff race doesn’t sit well with Dahlin. Dahlin is also minus-16 and has been on the ice for 169 high-danger chances against at five-on-five, fifth most among NHL defensemen. Dahlin makes up for it because he’s been on the ice for 178 high-danger chances for at five-on-five, which is tied for second among NHL defensemen. But he’s been thinking more about how he plays in his own end.

“I’ve been thinking about it the last two days here, and what the team needs right now is a steady D-core,” Dahlin said after the Sabres’ morning skate Thursday. “I can’t really jump into rushes right now. I gotta have more responsibility and I have to take care of the D-zone more. It’s going to be a little bit different from my side in terms of defensively. But it’s what the team needs right now and I’m very excited for it.”

What makes Dahlin a player who earned an $11 million annual salary is how he’s able to create offense. He’s a top-end skater and has the puck-handling skills and creativity to generate chances by himself when he’s on the ice. He’s also one of Buffalo’s most competitive players on a game-to-game basis.

He’s at his best when that competitiveness is showing up in the defensive zone. That wasn’t the case Tuesday, when the Sabres lost 5-2 to the Kraken and Dahlin smashed his stick over the crossbar in frustration after Seattle’s fifth goal. Dahlin was on the ice for three goals against and four high-danger chances against at five-on-five.

That’s what prompted the soul-searching from Dahlin as the Sabres’ defensive inconsistencies continued.

“I’m responsible for that, too,” Dahlin said. “We’ll see how much offense we’re going to create because we need good defense now. The individual stuff, you have to put that aside and dial in defensively.”

The Sabres have done that for two straight games, first a 4-3 win over the Senators and then a 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. In those two games, Dahlin has been on the ice for only one high-danger chance against at five-on-five. Against the Canucks, Dahlin wasn’t on the ice for a single high-danger chance at five-on-five. That’s only the second time in the last two seasons Dahlin has accomplished that.

Don Granato said that when Dahlin and his usual partner, Mattias Samuelsson, aren’t playing at the top of their game, they lack focus and lose control of their gaps on rushes. Both players are capable of shutting down opposing teams’ top players when they’re assertive.

“When they’re not that way, you get pissed off as a coach because they’re not playing as well as they can play and to their capabilities,” Granato said. “You get on them and get in their face and sit down and watch more video and you let them know they’re not playing to their abilities and capabilities and they’re not taking charge enough.”

They started to take charge more consistently, but both Dahlin and Samuelsson ended up in concussion protocol against the Canucks. Samuelsson left the game early in the second period and missed the rest of the game after he was hit in the head by Filip Hronek as the two were battling for the puck that was passed toward the net front. No penalty was called.

A few minutes later, J.T. Miller elbowed Dahlin in the head, and Owen Power jumped in to defend Dahlin. Miller and Power both got minor penalties. Even after reviewing the hit, referees decided not to give Miller a major. The Sabres were clearly frustrated by those calls but bit their tongues after the game. Erik Johnson did challenge Miller to a fight once he was out of the box for serving the minor penalty, though. Dahlin went to the dressing room to get checked for a concussion but returned.

At one point, Zemgus Girgensons needed to play defense because the Sabres were down to three defensemen with Samuelsson and Dahlin out while Johnson was in the penalty box. Still, they managed to limit the Canucks to one goal. Defense was not Buffalo’s issue Saturday. The Sabres’ scorers couldn’t beat Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, who stopped 25 shots for his fourth shutout of the season. The Canucks picked up their fifth straight win, while the Sabres once again failed to win consecutive games.

The Sabres are 18-21-4 through 43 games. While they’re seven points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, they also have the third-worst point percentage in the conference.

So it’s no wonder why Dahlin, the team’s lone All-Star, is trying to do everything he can to get his team heading in the right direction. But he can’t do everything.

What’s next: The Sabres’ game against the Sharks on Monday, originally scheduled for 1 p.m., will now start at noon. The team and the league agreed to push up the start time after the Bills’ home playoff game against the Steelers was rescheduled for 4:30 p.m. Monday. Depending on how the winter storm develops, the Sabres could change those game plans again. The Sabres played their game as scheduled Saturday, but fans had to deal with whiteout conditions in parts of Erie County on their way out of the arena.