ETOBICOKE, Ont. – The memories of his childhood were on Owen Power’s mind after he stepped off the ice Monday afternoon at Ford Performance Center.
This was one of the many rinks Power frequented as a kid from nearby Mississauga with a dream of someday playing in the NHL. To Power, there was nothing unusual about his first practice with the Buffalo Sabers. His parents, Zee and Trish, watched from a window overlooking the ice, much like they did during his time competing in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
Owen Power, who signed an entry-level deal with the Buffalo Sabers on Saturday, took part in his first full practice with the team on Monday.
“I grew up in this building,” Power joked.
But there was nothing typical about the scene ahead of Power’s debut Tuesday night against the Maple Leafs in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. A dozen cameras were fixated on the 19-year-old defenseman from start to finish. As the Sabers took laps before practice began, Power received a crash course on the team’s drills from coach Don Granato.
There were brief chats between practice repetitions with assistant coach Marty Wilford and defenseman Henri Jokiharju, with whom Power was paired. When the skate ended and the Sabers gathered for a stretch around the center-ice logo, Power was pushed to the middle. His teammates then banged their sticks repeatedly to welcome the 2021 No. 1 draft choice to the NHL.
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“It was pretty special,” he beamed.
Only one player in the group can relate to the media attention and hype that will follow Power for years to come: Rasmus Dahlin, a fellow first overall draft pick who was selected to the NHL All-Star Game in February amid a breakout season in which he’s become the Sabers’ top player.
Dahlin knows the scrutiny that will follow Power. Some people will overlook all that Power does well early in his career to focus on small mistakes. It’s the nature of the position and a product of the hype that has surrounded Power since his time with the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel.
And while the Sabers’ dressing room is filled with players eager to help and support him, Dahlin has wisdom that can help Power through the highs and lows as a teenager competing in the best league in the world.
“He’s a young kid,” said Dahlin, who will turn 22 on Wednesday. “He’s here to learn. It takes time, so that’s going to be my advice to him. It takes time. Just let him be who he is and let him develop. So, no rush. ”
Dahlin didn’t have that luxury. Upon his selection first overall in 2018, Dahlin was immediately thrust into a pressure-packed situation in which the Sabers were expected to break a playoff drought that dated back seven years. The thinking was that he would fix a defense corps that was one of many weaknesses surrounding Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
For the first three seasons of his NHL career, Dahlin’s development was hindered by a lack of continuity on the blue line – he didn’t have the benefit of skating with the same, reliable partner – and turnover on the bench and in management. System changes, especially the one implemented by Ralph Krueger, didn’t allow Dahlin’s talents to shine. There were unfair comparisons to other young defensemen like Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox, who had different paths to the NHL.
“Huge, huge impact,” Granato said. “To have somebody that was selected obviously number one overall in Rasmus Dahlin and the unrealistic expectations heaped on a guy just to create stuff to talk about with every little mistake. Dahls has done an amazing job with that. We have lots of guys who are excited that Owen is here, but I think Dahls has gained a lot of experience that he’s excited to share. “
This is an ideal time for Power’s arrival, although he would have preferred to win the national championship with Michigan. The Sabers have a healthy behind-the-scenes culture in place, spearheaded by veterans like Kyle Okposo and the young core, and there won’t be immense responsibilities placed on Power from day one. There’s also been recent success on the ice, including a 10-4-3 record from March 2 through April 5.
Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson are expected to be the Sabers’ top defense pair against Toronto, a fresh look that provides Granato with a formidable and intriguing top pair. Power won’t have to skate 20-plus minutes against top lines every game.
“Nobody has to be the savior,” Granato said. “This group is going to do it together and they’re building together. You can see the camaraderie and the passion that they have for each other and to put that jersey on. It’s fun to be a part of as a coach. … And obviously, when you add talent, and we feel like we have a lot of talent, though it’s young at this point, there’s always that energy and excitement for us as coaches knowing each day they are getting better. ”
In Power, the Sabers are adding another dynamic left-shot defenseman, but his skill set is unlike any on the roster. He’s listed at 6-foot-6 – two inches taller than Samuelsson – and he has the skating ability to make a significant impact on offense. Power has been labeled as a well-rounded defenseman, and he played in every situation during his two seasons at Michigan, including on the right side of the Wolverines’ penalty kill.
By returning to school for his sophomore season, Power improved his instincts in the offensive zone and the nuances around his own net, particularly how to shield the puck from an opponent on the breakout. He quarterbacked a Michigan power play that ranked second in the nation entering the Frozen Four. His game is also more refined defensively than Dahlin’s was as a rookie. Dahlin came from the Swedish Hockey League, where the ice surface is wider and defensemen don’t have to play a physical game.
He now has the wisdom gained through triumph and tumult. Dahlin is amid a season in which he has nine goals and 44 points – tied for the career-high he set in 82 games as a rookie in 2018-19 – while averaging a team-high 23:59 of ice time.
“He’s someone who has been through kind of the same experience, so I think he’s someone I could really lean on and just try and ask him any question I can and just learn from him,” said Power, who had 32 points in 33 games as a sophomore.
The days to follow will be a whirlwind for Power. He’ll play in front of family and friends near his hometown. His first game in Buffalo’s KeyBank Center will occur Thursday night against the St. Louis Blues. He’ll have to adjust to the speed and skill of the NHL, beginning with Hart Trophy favorite Auston Matthews in Toronto. Dahlin doesn’t plan to provide unsolicited advice as Power acclimates to his new surroundings.
Behind the scenes, though, Dahlin has been talking about Power’s arrival for some time, Granato said. Dahlin and Jokiharju each wanted the opportunity to skate with the newest Saber. It’s Jokiharju who drew the assignment first, but Dahlin will be in Power’s orbit to remind the fellow No. 1 pick to ignore all the hype before and after the long-awaited debut in Toronto.
“It for sure doesn’t help you to listen to it, so that’s going to be my advice to him,” Dahlin added. “Just be patient and you will eventually develop as the player you will be. He’s a super-skilled and great defenseman, so I’m not worried at all. ”