How Sandin’s maturity helped him navigate challenging season with Maple Leafs

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Before Rasmus Sandin was called to resurrect a seriously ill power play and before he grew to be the youngest Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman to score a playoff goal in over 34 years, that’s how his season began.

There was absolutely no indication that he would end up in the mix by playoff time. It was barely four months ago and he couldn’t even make a match.

You could feel the frustration starting to creep in after Sandin was finally able to play on February 8, but he only saw seven shifts as he dressed as the Leafs’ seventh defenseman. Asked about this experience after being sent to the American Hockey League not long after, he said, “I don’t know if I’m counting this as a game, really. It was five minutes of ice time [but] I thought it was great to put my gear back on.

The Leafs hadn’t lost confidence in a recent first-round pick, but they had seen his development opportunities affected by the pandemic. And they obviously didn’t believe he was ready to take responsibility in a win-now season where KHL free agent Mikko Lehtonen knocked him down in eighth place in the depths table.

That’s what makes Sandin’s emerging role in this first-round playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens so unexpected and the goal he scored in Saturday’s 5-1 win in Game 2 so important.

The team’s power play had been in such a state of distress that the coaching staff transferred quarterback duties from the top unit to Sandin at the end of the regular season. They saw enough to keep him there to start the playoffs, scratching the more experienced Travis Dermott when Zach Bogosian returned from a shoulder injury.

The resolve of that decision only got stronger when Sandin pulled a shot past Carey Price, especially after the PP showed a much sharper and faster puck movement with him at the top. At 21 years and 76 days, that made him the youngest Leafs defenseman to score in a playoff game since Al Iafrate in 1987.

And that came with a big sigh of relief for Sandin after a long overhaul because Montreal challenged the goalie interference believing Joe Thornton lifted Price’s stick.

“I was a little nervous, to be honest, because I haven’t scored in a year and a half or something,” Sandin said. “So I really wanted it to be a goal.”

He has only played 12 games in the last 14 months. He will get 13th place Monday night at the Bell Center with the series tied 1-1.

What makes his arrival even more unlikely is that the window of opportunity only really opened because he broke his foot blocking a shot with the Marlies and ended up making a trip to Western Canada with the Leafs last month because the AHL team was shut down by a positive COVID-19 case. He was at the end of his rehabilitation period and participated in a game. One became eight because Bogosian was injured.

Despite the long layoff, injury and the memory of 12 healthy scratches to start the season, Sandin played with confidence and poise. He gave the Leafs the potential power-play response they desperately needed. And he convinced his head coach in the process.

“I just think that with Rasmus the benefits can be very big for us in terms of skills and what he can bring,” said Sheldon Keefe. “It takes a little extra patience on our part.”

He first demanded heaps of his.

This past year could have dashed the confidence of another young player. Or maybe sent him down a path of frustration and anger that wouldn’t have left him ready to do his best when the opportunity arose.

But there is an emotional maturity in Sandin which belies his age and which served as an asset when his patience was tested.

You have to believe his close relationship with his teammate / roommate William nylander helped too. There was a light moment after Saturday’s game when Nylander told reporters that he was actually the source of Sandin’s confidence: “He looks and he sees and he learns, you know?”

Perhaps that line was both funny and true.

Nylander’s self-confidence ranks up there with his cutting edge work. He and Sandin have been training together at their home in Sweden for a few years now and had just finished an ice session together in December when Sandin called for an interview. He said he saw the benefits of increased strength just days before flying to Toronto for training camp, noting that Nylander had recently broken a stick in frustration after participating in a combat exercise: “ Even William can’t even handle me on the ice. now.”

His goals heading into 2021 were clear.

“Play all the games I can and make a bigger impact on the team this year – try to help the team win more games,” said Sandin.

Even though games turned out to be hard to find, he still ended up here in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the chance to make a difference.

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