BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Many Sabres players don’t know what it’s like to play in the playoffs because so far in their careers, Buffalo hasn’t made it to the postseason.
Captain Jack Eichel said he’s fed up with the losing while defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said he doesn’t even know what a winning culture feels like.
And now defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is on that list of guys who have yet to play in the postseason as his second year in the NHL comes to an end as the Sabres missed the 24-team playoff as part of the league’s return to play format.
“It’s tough to be here in Sweden when all of my Swedish buddies are going back and playing and I’m staying here at home here in Sweden and not playing. It pisses me off a little bit actually to not play now,” Dahlin said on a zoom call with reporters as part of the team’s virtual locker clean out.
You can’t blame Dahlin or any player that expresses their frustration of this playoff drought continuing. But Dahlin had to deal with some mental challenges that some guys might not have to think about.
“I had more pressure on myself and more pressure from the outside too so it was a lot different. I had to be more mature, I had to play better every day. I had to be a player the coaches could trust every game so it was a good challenge but it was a lot of fun,” Dahlin said when reflecting on year one to year two in the NHL.
That pressure comes with being a first overall pick paired with the fact that the Sabres still haven’t made the playoffs in nine years. Not to mention, Dahlin’s extremely competitive personality makes it even tougher on himself.
“I’m a competitive guy and my goal is to make the team number one in the NHL and myself number one in the NHL too. I always want to strive to be the best so it’s been what I expected, it’s a long process. Me and the coaches have been talking a lot, how to get better every day,” Dahlin said.
And some of his other teammates understand this added pressure, someone like Eichel who the Sabres drafted second overall in 2015.
“I understand why pressure would weigh on him, I mean you look at our situation. We haven’t been successful in a while and a lot of the success and failure with our group fails on his shoulders along with a few other guys it seems like. He’s deemed to get drafted and help this team take the steps and make the playoffs and you see how competitive he is, he wants to be there, he wants to be doing it,: Eichel explained.
“He feels like the pressure is on him but I think he does a great job of handling it. He never lets us know that he’s not in a good position or he’s battling it and sometimes you wish he kind of would so you could help him a little bit more but he keeps to himself and works really hard and I think every year he’s going to continue to get better.”
Along with managing the pressure that comes with the kind of player Dahlin is, he’s also using the disappointment of not making the playoffs as motivation for next year.
“It’s gonna be a long summer. I can take care of my body well, I can do all of the small stuff to get better every day, I can be a lot better over the summer and for next year so I take this as a fuel to be a lot better next year. It’s gonna be a good summer. I have a lot of time to be a better hockey player for sure,” Dahlin explained.
Specifically he’s working on…
“It’s putting on more muscles, being heavier, to take care of my own zone better. I’m putting a lot of work in the gym, I’m working on my shot almost every single day that’s my main thing right now, my shot,” Dahlin said.
Dahlin finished with four goals and 36 assists in 59 games this season while three of those goals and 21 of those assists came after his return from a concussion. That’s something Dahlin says actually helped him to became a better player.
“I was reflecting a lot and I think I understood the game a little bit better when I was gone for a while and just realized what I was capable of. After that injury I thought I was playing better too so I think that injury was pretty good for me,” Dahlin said.
While sitting in the press box and watching the games from a that viewpoint, it allowed Dahlin to take in the game differently, something head coach Ralph Krueger noticed immediately.
“I thought he processed the games differently when he was injured. His feedback after games was deeper and he was seeing the whole really clearly for me for the first time. I believe he probably went one and a half seasons just trying to find his role defensively, his game without the puck because a player that skilled and talented spends his life playing with the puck until he comes to the National Hockey League and then as a first overall pick suddenly people target you, you deal with the physicality which he was never afraid of but I think it was the whole that got lost a little bit in his individual play and for me he came back and understood the tactic and the strategy better,” Krueger said.
The talent stayed the same, it was just about channeling it in a different way.
“He simplify his game, brought his brilliance in on a more patient pace and waited for those opportunities versus thinking on every puck contact he needed to do something brilliant and it was just a natural maturing for me that happened. You know an injury is just like this break right now, it’s a question of what we do with that time that matters. That’s what we’re going to be judged on, how we used the time and he used it really, really well and we’re excited on the confidence that he took coming out of this season,” Krueger explained.
Dahlin missed ten games with a concussion he suffered in November against the Lightning after an illegal, blindside hit by Erik Cernak.
While this season didn’t finish the way Dahlin wanted, there are still plenty of positive things to take away including everything he overcame with the injury and dealing with the internal and external pressure that he’s now using as another way to work harder.
“I want to be a two-way defenseman so it’s been a lot of work but now I feel comfortable and now I can make my next step and hopefully I can show it next year. So I’m very motivated for next year especially for our team to show what we’re really capable of. We’re a young team, a lot of young, motivated guys and I ‘m really looking forward to next season for sure,” Dahlin explained.
“Rasmus is one of the best kids I’ve ever been around. He loves hockey, he wants to get better, he’s trying to get better every day, he works at his game so he’s a pleasure to be around every day,” Eichel said.