In the 2018 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres made a pick that will go down in history. With the first overall pick, they selected Rasmus Dahlin from Sweden. Dahlin was described by Last Word on Sports’ own Ben Kerr as the Connor McDavid of defensemen. Rightfully so, Dahlin is one of the best defensive prospects in this century and drastically improves the Buffalo Sabres defence. He scored 20 points in 41 SHL games last season, as well as averaging just under point-per-game in most of his U18 International play. He made his NHL debut on October 4th but hasn’t seen many forms of explosive play in his first two NHL games.
The acquisition of Dahlin makes the Sabres a much better team. It also heavily inflates the strength of their depth on defence, as having a star 18-year-old naturally does. But the Sabres have a fairly convoluted depth chart when Dahlin is removed from the picture. Behind the veil is an interwoven group of young players that can’t be predicted. Out of the top four defensive prospects in their system, not including Dahlin, none of them have a clearcut ‘Road to the Show’.
Buffalo Sabres Defence Beyond Rasmus Dahlin
Brendan Guhle is the Sabres best defensive prospect after Dahlin. Guhle was a strong presence in Buffalo’s training camp this season and it was surprising that he did not make the NHL roster to start the year.
Guhle had a very strong season in the AHL last year. He netted 26 points in 50 games with the Rochester Americans. He has shown off a very skillful offensive side of the game, like many of Buffalo’s defensive prospects. He’s continued improving this skillset, as well as becoming much more consistent on defence, over the years since he was drafted in 2015.
Guhle will be an obvious pick when the team is making their roster next season. He’ll also likely be the go-to man for any NHL call-ups, similar to how he was last year. He played 18 NHL games in the 2017-18 season, netting five assists.
For more on Guhle and the Sabres prospect pool as a whole, visit here.
Besides Dahlin, there aren’t many standout players in Buffalo’s bunch. They made one other noteworthy pick in 2018, grabbing Mattias Samuelsson from the USHL. Samuelsson is a strong defensive defenseman. Once he develops he could anchor a pairing behind Dahlin, playing key matchups and taking on plenty of penalty kill time. His defensive prowess could help the Sabres balance their pairings.
Samuelsson was fairly strong with the U.S. National Development team last year, scoring 31 points in 58 games, as well as two points in seven IIHF Under-18 games and winning a silver medal. He was also the captain of the U.S. team in the tournament. For a defenseman who flaunts his skill in his own zone, these numbers are not something to throw stones at. Samuelsson is 220 pounds and stands at a whopping 6-foot-4. Still, his skating and work offensively make him a well-rounded player. His size also helps make his defensive game that much better. While he clearly knows what he’s doing and how to do it when on the ice, some of his best qualities are in his physicality and ability to play the puck. Samuelsson picked up 113 penalty minutes in the 58 aforementioned games, most coming from his size alone.
Samuelsson is a strong, well-rounded defensive-defenseman who uses his size and knowledge to his advantage. His dad played in over 800 NHL games in the late 80’s and 90’s, and his uncle played a high level of hockey in Sweden. Both share Mattias’ position and will undoubtedly be a huge help to him as he moves into the NHL-level. While he isn’t a golden-boy for the Sabres, he could be a decent and gritty defenseman that fights his way to a high level in the organization.
After Samuelsson, it’s hard to rank the Sabres defensive group. Oskari Laaksonen is one of a number of up-and-coming prospects. He was drafted by the Sabres in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft, after a decent season in Finland’s Junior-Liiga. He made his debut in the SM-Liiga, Finland’s highest league, the year after but didn’t see very much scoring, playing in 27 games and netting four assists. It was a different story for Finland’s international team. In six games with the U20 group this past season, 19-year-old Laaksonen netted six points, with five of them being goals.
The international tournaments did a good job of ultimately showing fans how he plays. He’s a slender defenseman who does a good job of moving up ice, whether it’s through his skating or passing which are both strong. At 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds, Laaksonen is almost the exact opposite of Samuelsson. His very slender frame could be his Achilles’ heel in the long run, but for now, he makes up for it with his ability with the puck. He is very well poised and does a great job of reading the ice while taking the puck into the neutral zone.
Laaksonen has also been an absolute beast to start off the season. After playing limited minutes in Finland’s top league last year, he solidified his role going into this season. The decision to put him in the Liiga has paid off for the Ilves. He is currently six games into the season and has averaged a point per game. This includes one goal, his first in the league. This could be a promising sign for him. After seeing a few struggles in high levels of play, Laaksonen might have finally found his footing.
His stature is the ultimate downside, though. At such a light frame, it’s not too hard for bigger forwards to knock Laaksonen off the puck. This isn’t much of an issue in U20 international play, where Laaksonen has seen the most success, but in the SM-Liiga it’s been his biggest flaw. That problem only gets worse as he moves into North American hockey, especially as he tests the NHL. If he can’t bulk up, there’s a very slim chance he becomes a mainstay in the NHL.
Will Borgen is in a group of three or four players that were drafted by the Sabres, then played college hockey into their early 20s. He’s the best out of them all, but it’s a fairly close contest. Overall, the group doesn’t feature much NHL talent, but players like Borgen could be great for the team’s depth in the long run.
Borgen was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, straight out of high school in Minnesota. Since then, the defenseman has played one year of USHL hockey and two years at St. Cloud State University. He made his AHL debut last season, after St. Cloud lost in the playoffs. He played in eight games with the Rochester Americans but didn’t score any points. The 21-year-old Borgen scored 15 points in 36 games with St. Cloud in that same season.
Borgen is a pretty well-rounded player. He doesn’t excel at one thing. Even his stature is fairly average, at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds. The strongest part of his game is his skating. He’s proven to be extremely athletic which helps him tremendously on the ice. He also flaunts a good ability to pass the puck and overall read plays, though his offence isn’t something to get overjoyed about. All-in-all, Borgen’s biggest weakness is also his biggest strength. He’s a very well-rounded player. This could be great for him or could keep him in a seventh-man role with the Sabres. He’s playing his first full AHL season this year, with no points in his two games so far. By this time next year, a lot more questions will be answered about Borgen. As of right now, there isn’t much to go off of, though.
As a Whole
The Sabres aren’t as well off on defence as they are at forward. They have a few good players and some that could provide some solid depth down the line. At this point, the Sabres defence could use all the help they can get. The team allowed the most goals-against last season, after a very rough showing from their defensive group. The addition of Dahlin into that group adds a bit of help, but the organization is undoubtedly looking for these players to step up and contribute in a big way. Only time will tell, as none of them are guaranteed to be future NHL mainstays. But the stats are in their favour as they move up the Sabres depth chart.
Main Photo: PLYMOUTH, MI – FEBRUARY 14: Mattias Samuelsson #23 of the USA Nationals follows the play against the Czech Nationals during the 2018 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament game at USA Hockey Arena on February 14, 2018 in Plymouth, Michigan. The Czech Republic defeated the USA Nationals 6-2. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)