It's been a whirlwind 10 days for Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin.
To the surprise of nobody, Sandin was named top defenseman at the World Junior Championship earlier this month after recording 10 points en route to Sweden's bronze-medal effort. His run was so good that only Alex Pietrangelo (12 points for Canada in 2010) had more points as a defenseman in a single tournament since Sandin was born in 2000. Sandin, 19, looked like a man among kids – someone capable of outsmarting the best of the best with the puck.
The momentum carried over in a big way on Tuesday when he made his first start back with the team since getting sent down after six games earlier this year. After the world juniors, he was home for a couple of days before heading out to Texas for a one-night stand with the Toronto Marlies before earning a call-up the next morning, signaling what could finally be the end of his time in the minors. A two-assist effort on Tuesday against New Jersey marked the best game of Sandin's short NHL career, but also showed a more polished defenseman than we first saw back in October straight out of his second NHL training camp.
Sandin's transition back to the NHL resulted in 16:12 of ice time (12:43 at 5-on-5) – the lowest of the six defenseman – but that was expected. What wasn't expected was his two-assist night that showed he was ready for more consistent big-league action. The stat pool may be limited to compare him to other defensemen, but the eye test showed that Sandin would have more of an impact going forward than Cody Ceci or Martin Marincin, at least.
The call-up couldn't come at a better time for Sandin and the Leafs. Sure, a depleted blueline with Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly out long-term meant someone had to be called up, but Sandin often found himself lined up against New Jersey's best line of Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman and Nikita Gusev – though Sandin was never on the ice for any of Coleman's three goals.
"Seeing Rasmus step up was awesome," said Zach Hyman, who tipped in one of Sandin's shots in the first period. "He's a good player and it showed early. He got some confidence there... his ability to walk the blueline, to get off the wall and get to the middle to create shot lanes. He's not afraid to go back and get the puck."
Single-game sample sizes are laughable when trying to determine if someone is 'NHL ready', but Tuesday's effort was a culmination of what's been a strong 2019-20 season for Sandin. It started with a spot in the NHL immediately out of camp and continued with an effort that put him in the early conversation for the AHL's top defenseman heading into December. There, Sandin posted 15 points in 21 games and was a two-way leader for a team in a bit of a transition period with coach Sheldon Keefe sent up to replace Mike Babcock as Leafs coach. Top that off with a near-historic effort at the world juniors and you have a young kid riding high and playing fantastic hockey – and it showed with his return to the NHL. Any kinks and rust that could have been expected were non-existent.
"I feel confident out there," Sandin said. "I feel like I know all the guys a little bit more. Our group here is very good and it helped me in every way."
"I don’t think it’s surprising people, to be honest," Mitch Marner said. "We saw him at world juniors, you saw the success he had there and you saw how (well) he can walk a blue line and kind of fake people out."
Having Keefe lead the way at least gives Sandin an extra bit of comfort. Keefe was Sandin's coach for a year and a half with the Marlies, so it added an extra level of familiarity for Sandin's return. Perhaps that means Sandin will get more opportunities than he would have under Babcock earlier in the season.
"He's got a good opportunity here now, I'm excited to see him play," Keefe said. "He's had a little taste of the NHL and he's got a little extra experience now with the Marlies, the world juniors and coming in here now. Our team is playing differently than the last time that he was here. I think that's going to suit his game well. The defensive part of it is going to be his challenge and we're going to expect him to show some growth.
"The biggest thing about Sandy's game is his poise," Keefe said. "And I think that's – when you have that, you don't get fazed by where you're at. He has that in spades."
What happens over the next few weeks is what's really key, here. Muzzin is still believed to be a few weeks away and Rielly won't be back for another two months, so Sandin has a perfect opportunity to prove he belongs. The timing is perfect, with the uncertain futures of pending UFAs Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, both of whom haven't performed fully to expectations. Sandin is still young and there doesn't need to be a rush to make sure he's ready, but the Leafs won't want to stop Sandin's momentum anytime soon.
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