Door swings open for Maple Leafs’ Sandin after Rielly, Muzzin injuries

Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin very excited for his opportunity with the big club, says he has gained valuable experience from his time at the World Juniors, and with the Toronto Marlies.

TORONTO — This is an unvarnished opportunity for Rasmus Sandin.

In fact, if you’re a 19-year-old prospect aching for a NHL breakthrough, you can’t really hope for better.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, down their top two defencemen, suddenly need Sandin to munch minutes. And if he’s good enough, there’ll be a chance to play a lot of them in the absence of Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly.

His second NHL call-up comes with no artificial cap on playing time or concerns over contract control — although the Maple Leafs were never overly worried about him hitting the 10-game threshold this season and starting the clock on his entry-level deal.

That’s certain to happen now with Sandin about to dress for his seventh game against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, while Muzzin continues to wear a walking boot and Rielly faces at least an eight-week recovery from a fractured foot.

"I feel prepared and I’m looking forward to tonight," Sandin said after an optional morning skate.

He will start on the third pairing alongside Cody Ceci, but that’s hardly set in stone. Until recently, Travis Dermott occupied that spot on the bottom pair and he’s one of the left-handed shots now ahead of Sandin in the rotation. The other is Martin Marincin, who has more healthy scratches (24) than games played (14) with the Leafs this season.

It’s not hard to envision Sandin moving up in the lineup if he plays well.

"We’ve got some question marks there, right?" said head coach Sheldon Keefe, who oversaw the first season of Sandin’s development in the American Hockey League. "How is Sandin going to adjust back in? And then how is he going to pair with Ceci, who he’s never played with? And how are the other pairs going to work out?

"I think when you’ve got two important pieces like this out, like we do, you’re going to have some new things that you’re trying and new opportunities that you’re giving guys. We’ll have to monitor it."

Keep in mind that Sandin arrives brimming with confidence after a dominant performance for Sweden that earned him top defenceman honours at the world junior tournament. He’s also logged more than 25 minutes per night across all situations for the Marlies and has 15 points to show for 21 games.

A key tenet to his game is a poise that belies his age and relative inexperience.

Teammates raved about how calm and confident he was after breaking camp with the Leafs in the fall. Sandin doesn’t possess one obvious elite tool — he’s not the fastest, or most physically imposing, or known for having the hardest shot — but he displays an overall situational awareness that will probably have us one day wondering how 12 other defencemen were called to the stage before the Leafs drafted him 29th overall in 2018.

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What remains to be seen is how impactful he’s prepared to be in the here and now.

Only a small handful of his peers have done it. The last five NHL seasons have only seen 10 defencemen play at least 40 games as teenagers — and Sandin won’t be the 11th, with his 20th birthday coming March 7.

But he has had a developmental edge on many of the 2000-born North Americans in the form of 78 games of AHL experience. He even noticed a difference after getting sent back to the Marlies in mid-October.

"I think just gaining confidence, I feel like. That’s the biggest thing," he said of where he’s grown. "I just feel more comfortable out there and I’m just playing my game."

Sandin’s first stint with the Leafs was basically ended by a shoulder to the face from Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader. That left him bloodied and set off some soul-searching inside the organization, where they started to weigh the merits of only playing their top prospect 12 minutes per game while subjecting him to those situations.

The bet here is that he’s leaned on much more heavily now. There’s even a chance he’ll kill penalties and see a little time on the power play given that Rielly and Muzzin both log key specialty teams minutes.

"I mean he’s gonna be great here," said Rielly. "I think it’s important that he has confidence and he goes out there and just plays true to his style of play. I think he’s an outstanding player with a great career on the horizon.

"I think that if that starts tonight that’s very exciting."

The door has swung wide open for Sandin, and there’ll be nothing holding him back if he’s ready to stride on through.

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