DALLAS -- Rasmus Dahlin said gaining valuable experience playing against men for two seasons in Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League is what ultimately transformed him into the player he is today.
[RELATED: Complete 2018 NHL Draft coverage]
Dahlin (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), chosen No. 1 by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center on Friday, isn't alone in his assessment.
He was the first of six Sweden-born players selected in the first round, tying a record from 1993, 2009 and 2011, and the first of 28 Sweden-born players chosen over seven rounds (217 players) to match the high set in 2011.
Only Canada (71) and the United States (55) had more players selected in the 2018 draft.
Video: Dahlin on honor of top pick, future with Sabres
The Sabres used three of their six picks on Sweden-born defensemen. After Dahlin, they selected Linus Lindstrand Cronholm in the fourth round (No. 117) and William Worge Kreu in the seventh (No. 187).
"You just look around at the success [Sweden] has had at the international game and the NHL, so many defensemen have stepped in and played extremely well," Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said. "[Sweden] has done an outstanding job as a country from the development process. I think especially on the back end, the mobility, how a lot of NHL teams now are, is how Swedish players play growing up with good mobility and good hockey sense to know how to move the puck. Those are attributes we're looking for in our organization."
Dahlin is the eighth Sweden-born player chosen among the top four selections in NHL Draft history, first since the New Jersey Devils used the No. 4 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft on defenseman Adam Larsson, two picks after countryman Gabriel Landeskog went to the Colorado Avalanche at No. 2. He is the first from Sweden to go No. 1 since Mats Sundin was selected by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989.
"We have the SHL and we put the young guys in the senior hockey league pretty quickly," Dahlin said. "You learn to play against men. That's probably one of the things that helped me so much. I needed to compete every single shift in all situations out there because I was not the strong guy everyone else was, so it helped me out a lot."
In the past 22 years, no fewer than 14 players have been selected out of Sweden in each draft. No other European country comes close.
"The Swedes changed their system of training young players about 15 years ago and are now reaping the benefits," said Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting. "They're concentrating more on the individual skills and they're also trying to have their junior league games over the weekend so that players can practice more during the week."
Video: The guys chat about the #1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin
The five other Sweden-born players selected in the first round after Dahlin are defenseman Adam Boqvist (No. 8) of Brynas Jr. in Sweden's second division to the Chicago Blackhawks, center Isac Lundestrom (No. 23) of Lulea (SHL) to the Anaheim Ducks, defenseman Filip Johansson (No. 24) of Leksand Jr. in Sweden's second division to the Minnesota Wild, defenseman Nils Lundkvist (No. 28) of Lulea to the New York Rangers and defenseman Rasmus Sandin (No. 29) of Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It starts long before they get to their draft year," said Craig Button, a former NHL general manager who is director of scouting and NHL analyst for TSN. "It starts in youth hockey. Sweden programs want to instill in the kids to make plays with the puck, skate, and to not hesitate. You can be creative or use your imagination to do things, but you don't just show up at 17 years old on a Friday night in the SHL and decide, 'OK, now that I'm here, I can do that.' It's a process.
"They want to emphasis skill; you have to skate and compete in the body-on-body areas, and you have to use your head and make plays with the puck, but the key is fostering and encouraging."
Sandin played five games with Rogle (SHL) before joining the Sault St. Marie to become acclimated to hockey in North America this season. He said Friday he would like to return to Sweden and play out the final year of his contract with Rogle in 2018-19, but that decision is pending. The Maple Leafs might want him to remain in the OHL to watch him develop in North America.
"We'll see what Toronto thinks," Sandin said. "But my contract (with Rogle) is still for one more year. I think I feel more ready to play against men (in the SHL) next year, for sure."
Button said the bottom line is that players in Sweden are having fun playing the game at a young age, and the players are benefitting as a result.
"It's great to talk about the NHL, but when you start with kids at ages 10-12, the biggest thing you want to do is make sure they're having fun," Button said. "If they're not having fun, they're dropping out and your program takes a step back. You want the kids to have some fun because that keeps them interested."