TORONTO — A demotion from the NHL has shaken the confidence of innumerable top prospects.
“Well, at first, it’s obviously very disappointing when you get the news that you’re going to get sent down, but at the same time, I looked at the positive stuff here, and I hope I get a lot of ice time down here as it’s going to help my development,” said an upbeat Sandin after the Toronto Marlies‘ morning skate.
“… (They) probably have the best development team in the world, so I’m listening to what they’re saying,” he added, admitting that he couldn’t help but let his mind wander to what he had done wrong on the ice when Leafs coach Mike Babcock and GM Kyle Dubas broke the news to him on Monday.
But Sandin has plenty of reasons for feeling optimistic.
The 19-year-old impressed in his short stint with the Leafs, notching two assists in six games, while recording a Corsi for percentage of 57.46 at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com, third-best on the team.
However, the 2018 first-round pick (29th overall) had trouble grabbing ice time on the Leafs’ new and improved D-corps, finishing with game logs of 12:18, 13:51, 15:20, 10:02, 12:48 and 8:58. And Toronto’s blue line is only expected to get even more crowded with the return of Travis Dermott from off-season shoulder surgery on the horizon.
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said he and Babcock will sit down over the weekend to discuss Sandin’s development, but the young defenceman simply needs more reps in high-pressure situations that weren’t available up with the big club.
“I think what you’re seeing here is just prioritizing his long-term development, and giving him the opportunities to play in situations that they know they’re going to need him in eventually, that he’s not gonna be able to get right now,” Keefe said.
“So while there are things to work at, I think that’s an important point, it’s less about him not being ready as it is the Leafs not being ready for him.”
Keefe called Sandin an “elite talent with an elite brain” and said he should play a similar role to the one he held on the Marlies last season, soaking up the team’s high-leverage minutes, but he will be looking for more consistency across the board.
Keefe added that the five-foot-11, 183-pound rearguard could benefit from some added time in the gym and needs work on dealing with the large and bruising human beings that play forward in the National Hockey League.
“The biggest jump in the NHL level, of course, is just handling the physicality of it, in particular, when it comes to protecting your nets and on the rush — and it’s not just him, it’s all the defencemen, that’s a priority for us here,” said Keefe.
And while Sandin may currently be in a lower league, he recognizes he’s an “NHL player” and it’s just a matter of timing.
“He’s very confident in himself and … when he came over to our side at the Ford Performance Centre (the Leafs and Marlies practice facility), he came right in to say ‘Hello’ to the coaches and had a big smile and was ready to get at it, so that’s what I expect from him,” Keefe said.
“He’s really got a good head about him and he wants to play the game and knows he is going to play a lot here and, more importantly, he knows he’s an important piece of the Leafs’ future. That gives him the confidence to just come down here and worry about getting better.”
Sandin’s sights remain firmly on a return to the NHL, and while his current blue and white jersey may not be the one he wants to wear most right now, he takes solace in the fact that he didn’t look out of place in the one he wore just last week.
“I feel like I can handle playing up there and that’s a good receipt,” Sandin said of his stay with the Leafs.
“At the same time, I need to work on some stuff and so, hopefully, I’ll be back up there soon.”