By Sean Gordon – The Globe and Mail
In case you’re wondering what the future looks like, it’s right there in the Swedish blue and gold sweater with No. 8 on the back.
You know, the fluid-skating, confident, ridiculously-gifted-with-the-puck 16-year-old named Rasmus Dahlin, about whom much will be said and written between now and the 2018 NHL draft, where his could be the first name called.
The defenceman is the youngest player to dress for Sweden at the world junior championship (by one day, but still), and the youngest in this year’s tournament.
One NHL amateur scout said he’s the best 16-year-old defenceman in living memory – “way ahead of [Ottawa Senators superstar Erik] Karlsson” at the same age.
It happens he’s taller and larger-framed than Karlsson, his favourite player, and is, in the words of TSN draft guru Craig Button, “icy” regardless of circumstance.
As long as we’re making comparisons, his skating may not be as explosive as Karlsson’s, but it’s smooth in ways reminiscent of another generational talent, former Detroit Red Wing Nicklas Lidstrom.
Perhaps the best way to describe Dahlin’s game is: Karlsson-like vision, lateral movement and attacking instincts in the offensive zone, whereas in his own end, his poise and ability to both defend and elude are Lidstrom-light.
How does it feel to be compared with a couple of the best Swedes to play the game, young Rasmus?
“I don’t really agree with it,” he said this week. “I mean, I’m just 16 years old … I’m just trying to play my game and do my best.”
Fair enough. But he’s also a 16-year-old who recently signed his first senior pro contract, an indication his days with Frolunda’s junior squad are over.
Being drafted first overall – he would become the first Swede to earn the distinction since Mats Sundin went to Quebec in 1989 – is “a dream, so I’m trying.”
Dahlin grew up in a hockey-playing family in Trollhattan, a town of 45,000 in an area that is, he said, “100-per-cent bandy” – an 11-a-side outdoor game played with a ball, not a puck, and with sticks that look better suited for field hockey than the NHL.
“The first time I was on the ice I was two years old. My dad plays hockey and my brother, too,” said Dahlin, who also has a sister (his parents made the trip to Montreal this week).
He played minor hockey down the road in Lidkoping, before moving to Frolunda, the club in nearby Gothenburg that spawned Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Lundqvist and Karlsson, among others.
Anaheim Ducks prospect Jacob Larsson, who played four games with the NHL club before being returned to Frolunda, insists Dahlin is already among the Swedish Hockey League’s standout talents.
“He’s pretty much been the same player with Frolunda as he is here,” said Larsson, the anchor of the Swedish defence at this tournament. “He’s got some sick moves when he’s skating up with the puck – he’s going to be really, really good. I mean, he’s already a good player.”
Larsson said Dahlin’s skill and evident promise have been a regular topic of conversation among the club’s senior players for at least a couple of years.
Now, others have become SHL regulars at 16 and later flattered to deceive: Former Edmonton Oilers draft Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson leaps to mind.
Much can and will happen between now and June of 2018. Confidence is breakable, knees or shoulders can give out, progressions can plateau.
Could Russian scoring machine Andrei Svechnikov or OHL forward Ryan Merkley pull ahead of Dahlin in the rankings? Could U.S. national junior program slickster Jake Wise, or CHL starlets Benoît-Olivier Groulx, Joe Veleno or Ty Smith also pull ahead of him?
They could, but none is at the best-on-best under-20 world showcase ahead of older, highly-regarded players.
That he finds himself playing against men for a powerhouse SHL club with a history of developing NHL talent augurs well.
Dahlin said this week that his expectations for the tournament were “not much.” Sweden’s coaches brought him as a seventh defenceman.
In his first game, Dahlin played just under nine minutes. In that time he chipped in a goal and an assist.
In his second, he played 12:17 and, while he didn’t score, showed plenty – his evasive manoeuvre on Switzerland fore-checker Marco Miranda early in the game was jaw-dropping – and was thrown over the boards late in the third with the Swedes chasing a go-ahead goal.
Seconds later, captain Joel Eriksson Ek scored.
He also got into a bit of a kerfuffle with 19-year-old Swiss captain Calvin Thurkauf, who yanked him to the ice with what appeared to be a slew-foot at the first-period horn.
Dahlin was having none of it, and immediately got up to challenge the older player before a teammate quickly shepherded him away.
The scouts will have ticked another box.