If there has been a breakout story in the SHL this season it is the rise of young defenceman Rasmus Dahlin.
Dahlin turned 17 last week, ending his run as the best 16-year-old hockey player in the world and starting his year as the best 17-year-old.
“I have coached many, many good young players, in both club and national teams,” says Frölunda HC head coach Roger Rönnberg, “and Rasmus is most certainly among the top defenders of those teams.”
Mr. Rönnberg’s assistant and defensive coach in Frölunda, Mr. Pär Johansson, says with a smile, “there is no limit in how good he can become; no limit whatsoever. The amount of skills that Dahlin already possesses is incredible.”
Much has been said about his physique and his skating, but the first thing that comes to Mr. Johansson’s mind is his understanding of the game and his vision. “He does things no one else sees. Not even full-blooded pros have seen that particular solution when he has. He is ahead of the game in many ways. He has so many skills, but that one stands out.”
Even if Dahlin stands tall when being interviewed, everyone keeps saying that he needs to grow his stature and frame.
“This summer is super important,” states Mr. Johansson. “He has been to camps before, but this is his first summer with a proper individual build-up for next season. While he will never be a Shea Weber kind of player, frame-wise, he has to bulk up a bit all over his body. Right now he manages a lot of his defensive responsibilities thanks to his outstanding balance.”
With five points (3G, 2A) in 14 playoff games with Frölunda, what stood out this year was the time in the World Junior Hockey Championship that put everyones eyes on the Swedish talent. He became the youngest Swedish player ever to suit up for the WJC.
Mr. Johansson chose his words carefully when asked if he would characterize Dahlin’s play as arrogant or a form of hubris. “I would never say that; I would call it the naïvety of youth, or maybe enthusiasm of youth. He oozes the thought ‘I can do this.’
“You have to remember that’s the thing we pay for when watching hockey. Then everyone goes bonkers when he succeeds and the same people turn on him as soon as he makes a mistake. You can’t have it both ways.”
When it comes to Dahlin’s progress during the season Mr. Johansson is quick to point out “there are more and more successful things compared to the unsuccessful things right now. He knows the difference of when he can try things, and when he can’t try the same thing.”
Dahlin is a work in progress, and Mr. Johansson treads carefully in working with the raw diamond in his hands. “We are pushing him every day to try things, but also to learn from his mistakes. He has scored three goals this playoff run, and he hasn’t cost us more than three; that means he’s still on the plus side of things. That’s all we can ask for since he is good for the team.”
Coach Rönnberg is in the same boat as Mr. Johansson, and the Frölunda spirit shows through. He knows his role and his vision is clear. ”We are here to educate players. That means I want to support them in the things they do. Of course, if things happen at the wrong moments or a few too many times, then I step on the brakes. But if he wants to deke someone in the offensive zone then he has to do that, and it is up to an attacker to cover Dahlin’s “normal” position".
“It’s a team effort and the upside that a player such as Dahlin brings, you have to use it.” It is a balancing act especially during the playoffs, but as Mr. Johansson says, so far it has worked out on the plus side for Dahlin.
To speed up and further the education, the day after a game is usually spent with the master and student watching every shift played on video going over strengths and weaknesses during the previous match.
When Dahlin steps off the ice after practice, the first thing that hits me is how tall he is, already standing 6’1” without skates. It’s the day after Game Five in the best-of-seven semifinal against Brynäs, a game Frölunda won. Brynäs eventually took the series in seven games, and is currently playing in the final against HV71.
“Playoffs!” says Dahlin with a smile. “They are great. You have a bad period every now and then, but both teams were struggling last night during the first period.”
Dahlin has made an impact and the previous night he scored another goal. When asked about what has changed for him during the playoffs, he answers without hesitation. “I have gained confidence throughout the playoffs, and I have matured a lot. The physique will have to wait until summer, hence right now it is the development of my game that has changed the most.
“My position game in the defensive zone and the defensive side of things overall is where I have improved a lot, and of course mentally. But it has also been a huge change how to prepare yourself before a game; what to do in difficult situations during the game to get maximum output every game. Eat, sleep, practise. Offensive play too. The work I do with Pär [Johansson] helps me on both sides of the puck.”
When asked to describe himself for the North American crowd that has only seen him in the World Junior Championship he says, “I try to be a two-way defender with an offensive upside [understatement of the year]. I am a bit more offensively inclined than defensively. Now, during the playoffs, I am more of the offensive guy on my pairing, but when it comes to it I will do what the coach tells me to do.”
One thing that has surprised a lot of people around hockey in Sweden is how well the 165-pound defender has adjusted to playoff hockey, which is usually a fair bit more physical than the grind of league play. Dahlin had three points (1G, 2A) in 26 games and has already surpassed that in game 11 of the playoffs.
It is his physical play that has surprised many. Speaking about the upcoming summer Dahlin offers up his thoughts and this own explanation to why he isn’t as big as he could be.
“I have practised hard all summer before, but I hadn’t really entered puberty so I haven’t been able to build up muscle the way that I have needed. It will be important this summer to build up my muscle mass a bit.
“I am looking forward to summer training. Maybe I shouldn’t,” he adds with a laugh. “Really, I am looking forward to it, you want to improve and this is the first step to do it.”
The answer is no surprise when asked whether he has a favourite team or player in the NHL. “I am looking more towards the stars over there, rather than a particular team. My favourite player is Erik Karlsson hands down.”
When it comes to the NHL team that drafts Rasmus Dahlin, you have to remember that he will never be a bruising type of player. He isn’t the big, stable defender. Dahlin’s upside lies in his offensive play and any team that selects him would do well to use Frölunda’s way of thinking: as long as he is generating more goals than he causes due to his sometimes naïve play, the team will benefit from his presence.
It will be interesting to see his next steps in Frölunda and the SHL next season, because it will undoubtedly be the last spent in Europe for a long time.
The next step has already been achieved. When Frölunda got knocked out of the playoffs, Dahlin wasn’t called in to join his fellow teenagers for the Under-18 World Championship; he was called up for the friendly games for the National Men’s Team against Belarus.
"It’s a dream come true,” he told the Gothenburg Post about the honour. “I haven’t really understood it yet."
For the young phemon, you have to believe that his experience on the international stage is just beginning.