Home and back again: How Jonathan Dahlen persevered to break into the NHL

From a highly valued prospect to leaving the AHL for Sweden, Dahlen has returned to San Jose and now he’s making history.

Jonathan Dahlen is an easy person to talk to. He’s friendly and relaxed, open, and easy-going. We’re tucked away in between the player’s area and the practice rink at the Sharks Ice.

Bob Boughner is still being interviewed for post-practice media availability about 20 feet away, but for the most part, it’s just us. It takes some of the pressure off in what can sometimes be an uncomfortable situation. Sitting down for an interview with someone you just met two seconds ago isn’t easy for everyone.

But Dahlen is no stranger to operating under (and succeeding) in high-pressure situations. As much as playing in the NHL is a privilege players are grateful for, there’s no question that it’s a high-stress environment rounded out by personal sacrifice and hard work. That pressure is even greater on younger players who are just beginning their professional careers in North America. They have to prove themselves day in and day out to stay on an AHL roster, work for a call-up, and potentially be traded to a new team — something the 23-year-old Dahlen is familiar with. Then, they have to make it out of training camp, and fight to stay in an NHL line up, and that’s just their life at the rink.

That same pressure of proving yourself to your team gets even harder when a development system is working against a player’s best interest.

There’s been rumors about the Utica Comets’ player development system being, shall we say … less than ideal for some player’s development. Russian defender Nikita Tryamkin notably refused assignment to the team in 2017, and would refuse to join them again in 2020. But this story isn’t about how the Utica Comets might be failing some of their young players.

Instead, this story is about how San Jose Sharks’ rookie Jonathan Dahlen persevered through his time with the Utica Comets, went back to Sweden to lead his team to the SHL, and now has come back to North America to prove, once again, why he was born to play in the NHL.

Utica Comets, American Hockey League

Jonathan was drafted in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in the second round, 42nd overall, by the Ottawa Senators. Before he could hit the ice for the Senators organization, however, the Vancouver Canucks traded veteran winger Alex Burrows to acquire the prospect on Feb. 27, 2017.

During the 2017-18 season, Dahlen played only two games for the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. Instead, he spent the majority of the year on loan to Timrå IK in HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier men’s league, where he made a great case as to why the Canucks were smart to trade for him. Over 44 games, Dahlen notched 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) and a +11 rating. How’s that for impressive?

But his first full professional season in North America in 2018-19 wasn’t everything he’d dreamed of. Though the locker room environment was full of great peers, it was a tough season for the young winger, mentally and physically.

His stats from that year don’t showcase the skill he knew he possessed, and he wasn’t able to demonstrate all that he knew he could do on the ice. In 50 games with Utica, he put up 29 points (14 goals, 15 assists) and was a -13, going from a point-per-game average down to .58 points per game.

On Feb. 25, 2019 the Canucks traded Dahlen to the Sharks in exchange for prospect Linus Karlsson. Trades are a complicated beast; on one hand, a player has to leave a familiar environment, their friends and their teammates for a new, unknown locker room, which can be emotionally stressful.

On the other hand, for a player like Dahlen, who hadn’t been prioritized or properly developed in the Utica Comets’ system, a trade can be a relief. Even so, he was forced to shut down his social media accounts following the trade, due to harassment he received from Canucks fans, who considered him to have given up on the organization.

Trades are another stepping stone in a player’s career and an opportunity for personal growth and maturation if a player takes advantage of it, and despite the negativity, that’s what Dahlen did.

Joining the San Jose Barracuda at the end of the 2018-19 season, Dahlen suited up for seven games, but his real return to form came in the 2019-20 season, which he spent again with Timrå IK, on loan from the Sharks.

Timrå IK, HockeyAllsvenskan

Dahlen was named an alternate captain that season and dominated HockeyAllsvenskan. Over 51 games, he scored 36 goals and registered 41 assists, with a +29. He had a lot to prove when he came back to play in Sweden, and while he certainly proved critics wrong then, he wasn’t done yet.

The next season was complicated due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Sharks did their best to accommodate their prospects during a period with limited ice time available. On May 26, 2020, Dahlen signed a one-year extension with Timrå, with his rights still held by the Sharks.

Dahlen was named captain for Timrå in the 2020-21 season, and it’s no wonder. His work ethic and maturity precedes his impressive resume, and it’s obvious that Timrå’s management believed in his ability to bring the team to success in a greater leadership position.

They were right to believe in him. Dahlen led his team to winning the 2021 SHL qualifiers, which means that the club will spend the 2021-22 season in the highest level of men’s hockey in Sweden, the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). That, combined with his 71 points (25 goals, 46 assists) and +30 rating over 45 games made the Sharks excited to bring him back to North America to re-start his pro career in the NHL.

Going back to play in Sweden allowed Dahlen the space to mature and grow not only as an athlete, but also as a person.

Sometimes we forget just how young some of these athletes are when they first begin their pro careers — or that they’re regular people who exist outside of our TV screens and stats sheets. Dahlen and I are less than a year apart in age, which both puts his journey into perspective, and, frankly, makes it that much more impressive. Fans often expect young hockey players making their professional debut to be faultless paragons of hockey skill, but they forget that under the pads, it’s a young adult just trying their best.

But Dahlen has always risen to the challenge, and being trusted as part of the leadership group in Sweden is just another facet to his story.

“Well, it was fun, and [I] matured a lot those years … I think I did well. I guess that my old teammates are the ones who should answer that question,” he jokes.

“But we won, so that was good. It’s obviously some pressure, you feel that you want to help everybody else as well when you’ve got that ‘C.’”

Everything he learned during his time in Sweden has a higher purpose, and it has its roots in California. His time with Timrå was over once he signed a one-year, one-way, $750k contract with the Sharks for the 2021-22 season.

(If the name ‘Dahlen’ sounds familiar in context with San Jose, then you might remember his father, Ulf Dahlen, who played for the Sharks from the 1993-94 season until mid-way through the 1996-97 season. Jonathan and his father are officially the first father-son duo to play for the Sharks in the history of the franchise).

San Jose Sharks, National Hockey League

The NHL and AHL aren’t so dissimilar, but the Sharks and Utica Comets are worlds apart. I asked Dahlen about what his expectations were for returning to North America, especially in light of the rough start the Comets had been for him.

He pauses to think it over. “I knew it was going to be tough coming over this time. But it was something I wanted to do, I wanted to take the chance, and I really liked how the Sharks have helped me still believe in me the past couple of years. [They] loaned me out, and gave me a qualifying offer, kept the rights, and then they wanted to sign me and give me a great opportunity.”

The locker room environment is always going to be a big factor in the success of players, and Dahlen mentions that as well.

“— The expectations were that it was going to be tough, and it has been, but it’s been easier as well with the group here, and everybody. It’s not easy, but it’s easier to play [with] a great group of guys and learn a lot from a lot of veteran players, so it’s been good.”

I know first-hand just how important self-belief is for any young person beginning their career in hockey, regardless of the resume you bring to the table. Having the backing of your team and management is just as important for young players who have made a name for themselves abroad, but are still unproven in the NHL.

The best part about hockey can also be the worst part about it; it’s an insular, close-knit community, which, can be intimidating or difficult for newcomers to slot into, and even more so for players who haven’t had positive experiences in similar circumstances. Locker rooms, especially on the lower levels, can be hyper-competitive, with a room full of players all vying for the same, singular spot on an NHL roster.

But NHL locker rooms are more of a ‘group-project’ environment, with everyone working together towards the same goal: to win hockey games. Jonathan recognizes that camaraderie and mentality in the Sharks room.

“It’s a great group of leaders here in this locker room. It’s very, very nice. In the locker room with everybody, [they’re] good guys, and happy, and we’re having a lot of fun. I think we played a really good game yesterday, too. And we won. So that was awesome. Now we got to keep winning.”

Dahlen shrugs, and smiles. “That’s what you want to do. Whatever level you come to, where we play. I just want to win as much as possible before I stop playing hockey.”

At 23 years old, Dahlen has already led Timrå out of relegation to the SHL, persevered through a less-than-ideal AHL experience, and has now earned a spot on the Sharks’ roster. He has a lot of time to continue winning; his career is just getting started.

The Sharks’ roster is turning over a new leaf, blooming with young talent who are eager to bring the team back to greatness, although it won’t be an easy path forward.

But the path gets a little clearer when the Sharks, and Jonathan Dahlen, play the way they did against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 19 for their first road game of the season.

In the opening five minutes of the first period, Dahlen skated to the front of the net on an early offensive push from the Sharks, and netted his first NHL goal on a tip-in from line mates Timo Meier and Logan Couture. Less than three minutes later, Dahlen worked his magic again on the Sharks’ top line, scoring his second NHL goal on a beautiful wrist shot on a rebound from Couture and Meier.

Dahlen didn’t just dominate the first five minutes, however. He was an electric current for the Sharks the entire game.

It’s proof that the Sharks’ line up is exactly where he should be, and head coach Bob Boughner said it himself in the post-game media conference.

“Dahlen’s a real smart player, I think he’s a good complement to that [first] line. He’s a guy that’s new to the league, but you can put him out in situations, like we want to have, against the other team’s top line.”

Top-line NHL minutes won’t make it easy to maintain his goal-per-game pace, but Dahlen’s still got plenty of hockey left in him to play and the Sharks will take whatever wins he can give them.