Welcome back to the newest edition of THN Hot Seat, an ongoing series of THN.com columns in which we identify the person in each NHL city who will be facing the most pressure in the 2022-23 season. The candidate can be an NHL player, coach or team owner.
In this file, we’re examining the Buffalo Sabres.
Sabers hot seat: Rasmus Dahlin, defense
why: You don’t want to put the team’s fortunes on his shoulders at the age of 22 and with two full NHL regular seasons under his belt, but it’s no coincidence that the Sabers struggled last season when Dahlin did, and Buffalo played better. As Dahlin improved. The Swedish blueliner finished the 2021-22 campaign with career bests in goals (13), assists (40) and points (53), and has thrived under head coach Don Granato.
Dahlin’s problem is consistency, and that’s the case with most NHL D-men. But now he makes $6 million per season — second only to Jeff Skinner ($9 million) on the Sabers — and with that salary, he’s expected to be a positive force on both ends of the ice. As Buffalo tries to get back into the playoff picture in the Atlantic Division, they’ll need him as their anchor, and any retreat from him will certainly hinder the Sabs’ competitiveness.
On the other hand, Dahlin will not only ease the pressure on himself with an above-average performance this season, but he will also take some heat off young defenseman Owen Power, who will later play in his first full NHL season. Last year’s eight-game debut. Again, it’s not entirely fair to place that much on two young guys, but it’s undeniable – if Dahlin falters, fans and the media will focus more on developing power, and that might not be in his best interest.
The rest of the Sabers’ defense isn’t exactly the cream of the league’s crop, though veteran and former Maple Leafs D-man Ilya Lyubushkin was added as an unrestricted free agent. Also, their new goalie, returning journeyman Craig Anderson, and 27-year-old UFA signee Eric Comrie aren’t considered particularly threatening, so Dahlin and Power have their work cut out for them in their own zone.
And on the other end of the game, Buffalo’s terrible offense needs all the help it can get, and at least in that aspect of the game, Dahlin has proven himself worthy of the buzz. He may not be on the level of Colorado superstar Kale Makar, but very few blueliners are. Another year of double-digit goals and at least 50 points will be enough for Dahlin. Having stability behind Buffalo’s bench — Granato is Dahlin’s third NHL coach — is also important to his development, but ultimately, it’s up to Dahlin to show there’s growth for the game.
Dahlin has two years left on his current contract, and will become a restricted free agent when it expires. The Sabers’ ownership earned him a substantial raise over his regular rookie deal, but if he doesn’t improve all aspects of his game, Dahlin could get a modest payout next time he hits the market. Of course, if it gets to that point, there will be teams ready to turn down Buffalo with an offer sheet, but Dahlin remains committed to the organization that picked him first overall in 2018. And the Sabres, but if he can continue to develop into a true two-way power, the trip will be worth it for the player and the franchise.