TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin likes Sweden’s odds at this year’s world junior championship, but he’d like them even more if the Toronto Maple Leafs allow him to don “The Three Crowns” once again.
Sweden released its preliminary roster for the tournament last week, which kicks off on Boxing Day in the Czech Republic, and the smooth-skating defenceman was notably absent from its backend.
The 2018 first-round pick (29th overall) said after the Toronto Marlies‘ practice last Friday that he’s had conversations with the U20 national team coach, Tomas Monten, and he hasn’t heard much from the Leafs, but expects to know if he will be made available shortly.
Sweden is hoping to rebound at the 2020 world juniors. Last year, a previously unbeaten squad suffered an early exit in the quarterfinals after an upset loss at the hands of Switzerland.
While the 19-year-old Sandin expects Sweden will ice a strong squad regardless, he knows his availability — as well as that of Adam Boqvist, the eighth-overall pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018, who is also playing in the AHL — would be a massive boon for the team.
“I think we have a pretty good chance this year. I think they already have a good team out there, and there’s a couple of spots open right now,” Sandin said. “So I think if we get all the players, it will obviously be an extra help, too. But I think the chances are pretty good this year again. We always have a good team, I feel like, so hopefully, we can do better than last year.”
Despite lingering feelings of regret over last year’s “tough” finish, Sandin would love another kick at the can with a roster that boasts a number of returnees.
“That’d be, first, a lot of fun. I mean, it’s always an honour, as I said, of playing for your country,” he said. “So going to play there, I think we could have a really good team this year and, yeah, obviously would be a lot of fun and a big honour again.”
Even though it remains unclear if Toronto will release Sandin from his AHL duties — during which he has put up 12 points in 16 games since being sent down in early October after a six-game stint with the Leafs — he looks back fondly on his experience at the 2019 tournament and believes it served him well.
“Coming back playing with all the Swedes, I mean, all of them I’ve played with before pretty much. So just meeting up with old friends and playing with them again was a lot of fun,” Sandin said.
“And then I was playing against really good players and the same age — (that) was really fun. And I think just coming in there, I think I had a good world juniors last year, so it was good for my confidence. I feel like I got to play a lot, got a big role, so if I go again, I hope for the same thing, with a better finish for the team mostly,” he added, reflecting on his performance, which saw him rack up two goals and two assists in five games.
While Sweden’s win would be a loss for the Marlies, temporarily leaving them with a gaping void on the blue line, the team’s assistant coach, A.J. MacLean, said there’s no doubt Sandin’s presence at the world juniors would be beneficial for his development.
“Oh, I’d imagine. I feel like anybody would be excited to go play for their country in an event like that,” MacLean said. “It’d be incredible. I, obviously, never got a chance to do it, so I’m always pretty envious of watching the guys go — looks like a ton of fun. It would just be an incredible experience.”
MacLean remains enthusiastic about Sandin’s participation despite the fact that the Marlies were delivered a blow to their blue line upon his return in January, as he suffered a sprained elbow in Sweden’s final game.
Sandin, for his part, doesn’t seem concerned about the potential for injury either.
“No, not at all. Not for me, at least I think. I mean, it happens in hockey. I had it in the beginning when I was (in the AHL) as well. It happens. I don’t think it depends on where you are and what team, but I think that’s hockey.”
Monten said Sweden is hoping to get some clarity on the status of Sandin shortly, but will keep some spots available until he receives a hard “no” from North American teams. Any decision would have to be made before Dec. 19 when NHL rosters freeze for the holidays.
Regardless, Monten is grateful that there’s even a chance the young Swede will even be released, as earlier in the year he thought Sandin might stick with the Leafs.
“I watched him in a couple of games with the Leafs. I actually didn’t think he was going to be here. I thought he was that good in the beginning of the season. I thought Toronto would keep him,” Monten said. “So I’m really happy that there is a possibility of getting him, but I totally understand Toronto as well. He’s a high prospect for them and I think he’s pretty close to the lineup. We’ll see what happens.”
Sweden opens its world juniors against rival Finland on Dec. 26 as it makes a run at its third gold medal at the tournament, and first since 2012.
With files from Sportsnet’s Ryan McKenna.