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'It's a dream' | Dahlin selected to 1st NHL All-Star Game

Defenseman has taken next step with top-pair minutes this season

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Don Granato has received texts from Rasmus Dahlin after games in which the defenseman feels he played beneath his standard. 

The question: Can we watch film tomorrow?

"Sometimes other guys have a bad night, they don't want to talk to a coach, they want to hide from a coach," Granato said Wednesday. "This guy, he cannot handle not having success, and he'll look in the mirror and say, 'I need to be better.'" 

Granato has championed Dahlin this season through his decisions on the bench and his message in the media room. He has given the 21-year-old minutes and assignments befitting of a No. 1 defenseman. He is unafraid to share the moments of unrelenting competitiveness he sees from Dahlin behind the scenes.

Soon, the rest of the NHL will get a glimpse, too. Dahlin was selected to represent the Sabres at the 2022 NHL All-Star Game, which will be played at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Feb. 5. The event consists of a three-game, 3-on-3 tournament played between representatives from each division. At least one represented is selected from each NHL club. 

It is the first All-Star Game selection of Dahlin's career. The defenseman was asked Wednesday what the honor might mean. 

"I haven't really thought about that," Dahlin said. "It's a dream."

Video: After Practice: Rasmus Dahlin

Granato felt it was only a matter of time. 

"A world of confidence can come from that type of experience and being put in that type of a category," Granato said. "He's deserving. … It's going to happen whether it's sooner or later. He's chipping very well toward that."

Dahlin entered the NHL with lofty expectations as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. He was a finalist for the Calder Trophy after his rookie season in 2018-19. By the end of his second season, he had amassed 84 points - surpassing names like Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque as the second-most by a teenage defenseman in NHL history (behind Sabres Hall of Famer Phil Housley). 

He entered his fourth season with the goal of being utilized as an all-situations player, having briefly had a taste of top-pair minutes once Granato took over in March of last year. He has been counted on to play top-line matchups night in and night out for the first time in his career. 

Dahlin leads the Sabres in average ice time (23:56), a number that has only climbed as he's exceeded 27 minutes in three of the past four games. His relative shot-attempts percentage at 5-on-5 remains positive (plus-3.4) for the fourth straight season despite more difficult matchups. 

The offensive skill, meanwhile, remains. Dahlin ranks second on the Sabres and is tied for 18th among NHL defensemen with 22 points (6+16). He makes All-Star caliber plays look routine with the puck on his stick, such as his touchdown loft to Tage Thompson against the Devils earlier this month.

Video: NJD@BUF: Thompson nets his second on breakaway

His most recent stretch pass sprung Cody Eakin free for a breakaway on Tuesday. 

"He's looking past five guys with pressure on him," Granato said. "It's absolutely amazing, and guys just can't do things like that. So, but I would say the key is combining the defensive and offensive game all in one, which extremely impressive. 

"There's very few guys that can do both, kill plays and transition plays in the league, and that's why he's an elite defenseman. And he's just going to get better at both. He is getting better at both as we watch. He's starting to identify with how to get better with what his skills sets are and how to impose at the right moments instead of trying to do it all the time. And that's still going to be a process for him."

Dahlin's willingness to adhere to Granato's "play fearless" mandate has impressed the coach as much as his skill. Granato singled out Dahlin's response to mistakes as an example for the rest of the team to follow during the first intermission of a loss to San Jose on Jan. 6. 

Alex Tuch joined the Sabres in a trade with Vegas on Nov. 4. Asked this week what he's learned about Dahlin, he gave no mention of stretch passes or dekes. 

"Something that surprised me was his leadership," Tuch said. "A lot of guys in the locker room look up to him even though he's still [21]. ... Everyone gravitates toward him, everyone watches him when he comes in. His work ethic is like none other I've ever seen. You know what? He really holds himself to a higher standard.

"It's really good to see from a younger player. It's something that I look up to as well. I've been able to be really fortunate to play with some really high-end and really good veterans in Vegas and also here in Buffalo. And to see a guy his age already have that presence and that mindset, it's really remarkable."

Dahlin admits he is playing the most confident hockey of his young career, a testament to a coach who supports him with high-end matchups and a partner in Henri Jokiharju who challenges him to be better. But he has higher aspirations than an All-Star Game.

"I'm on a journey so I'm not happy where I'm at and I want to get better," he said. "But it's a team sport. We haven't really won a lot of games lately so that's our next mission. Like I said, it's a team sport and I don't want to put focus on me. We're doing a great job and we have to build what we have here."

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