Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs’ Rasmus Sandin excelling ‘beyond his years’

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman prospect Rasmus Sandin. (Graham Hughes/CP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. Rasmus Sandin had never endured one significant injury, much less two.

The Toronto Maple Leafs 2018 first-round pick’s pro career got off to a rocky start this fall.

He’d impressed NHL coach Mike Babcock in pre-season, to the point where the teenager earned himself a nickname. "Oh, the Sandman there? CEO of the Sandman Hotels," Babcock smiled.

But then he got his thumb stuck in the sweater of an opponent he was trying to push away, box out, and the digit twisted backwards, delaying his AHL debut.

Once he was healthy enough to play, he looked fantastic for an 18-year-old defenceman battling grownups and earned an early spot on Sweden’s world junior entry — and suffered another injury, to his elbow, hyperextending his arm.

"I hadn’t been through that before," Sandin told me of this season’s health trials, which made him unavailable for Sweden’s elimination game. "Playing world juniors has always been a dream. It’s huge back home."

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Sandin turned 19 this week, and he scored a sweet overtime game-winner to celebrate.

He’d like to return to the worlds next winter, but that decision — like the one to make him a Marlie, instead of keeping him in the OHL or letting him skate pro back home with Rogle — is up to the franchise in whom he has entrusted his future.

"It’s pretty special, to be honest. I’ve never been with an organization this big before. It’s great for me as a young player to have all this on my side when working on all the small-area things I need to do," Sandin says.

"I’m just trying to listen to everyone. I mean, I’m the youngest one on the team."

The youngest, sure, but also the one GM Kyle Dubas refused to trade away for a defenceman that could help the Leafs contend immediately.

Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe saw aspects right away, especially defensively, in Sandin’s game that most junior players never grasp. The way he used his five-foot-11, 183-pound frame stood out.

"He’s not the biggest or strongest guy, but positionally he puts himself in really good spots, his angles are really good, and he’s competitive," Keefe says.

"He gets involved physically. He uses what he has extremely well. That same sense helps him with the puck as well. He preserves space very well so he can skate out of tricky situations very well. He plays calm. There’s a poise and confidence well beyond his years."

Keefe has seen injuries damage a rookie’s psyche, particularly if he’s never had a setback.

In Sandin’s case, however, the missed games have been a blessing in disguise. Had he been at full health, Sandin would be grinding through three or four games a week; off-days would be needed for rest.

Being out of the lineup may have hurt the Marlies’ in the win-loss column, but it’s permitted the Leafs’ development squad to drill down on skills and skating and improve Sandin’s situational play.

"He’s not only coming back healthy but a better version of himself," Keefe explains.

The first-year pro already has 14 points in 30 games. Used to living by himself because he’s done so since age 15 in Sweden, Sandin recently moved out of a Toronto hotel and into a downtown apartment, and he’s been able to lean on countrymate and D partner Timothy Liljegren for tips on and off the ice. (Sandin’s parents also made two visits to Canada this season.)

Sandin loves "everything" about his new city, particularly following the Blue Jays and Raptors, and lights up talking about watching the Golden State Warriors take on the Raps from a suite this winter.

"I’m more professional in how I take care of myself on and off the ice. Just do everything tougher, quicker, harder. You have to do it because you’re playing against men this year," Sandin says.

"It’s fine. It’s a bigger challenge, obviously, because they’re bigger guys, quicker guys, but I don’t think it’s overwhelming at all."

Toronto won’t rush a good thing, and Sandin is precisely that.

2. Braden Holtby played 66 games for Washington in 2015-16 and 63 games in 2016-17. The Capitals won two Presidents’ trophies and zero Stanley Cups those seasons.

Then, in 2017-18, Holtby’s workload dropped to 54 appearances. He was fresh and fantastic during the post-season, backstopping his franchise to its only championship.

With Toronto’s heavily used Frederik Andersen on my mind, I asked Caps coach Todd Reirden how big of a deal it was to monitor Holtby’s minutes last year.

"That was a huge part of our success. [Then backup] Philipp Grubauer did a phenomenal job for us," Reirden said. "Looking back on the impact Phil had by coming in and winning games was something we knew we had to replace. I think Pheonix [Copley, the Capitals’ current backup] has come in and done a good job, but to your point, it’s very important we continue to manage his games."

Even though Copley hasn’t performed as well as Grubauer did last season, Holtby is once again on track to make fewer than 60 appearances (58). The plan for Andersen, meanwhile, is a third consecutive campaign of 60-plus starts.

The lifters of the past four Cups, we’ll remind you, needed starts from both their netminders to reach the summit. Among the NHL’s upper echelon, the Lightning, Bruins, Islanders and Flames — for different reasons — have excelled at not exhausting their No. 1.

"It becomes a really long year, and if you ride one goalie for too long, it’s something that, in particular, our team hasn’t had success with in prior years here in Washington. Not many other teams have had if you look at the prior Stanley Cup winners. A lot of teams have had a mix of two goaltenders. Look at Pittsburgh and how they did it [with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury]. So it’s important how you manage that, especially with a guy who can have such a huge impact like Braden Holtby."

Or Frederik Andersen.

3. In a related story, Leafs coach Mike Babcock retracted his suggestion that backup Garret Sparks might see an uptick in starts down the stretch.

A segment of Toronto’s fans and critics have called for an upgrade at the No. 2 goalie position, but GM Kyle Dubas, who rode Sparks to an AHL title, re-signed the seventh-rounder to a one-year deal worth $750,000 for 2019-20.

Sparks’s numbers in Andersen’s relief are fine: 7-5-1, .902 save percentage, one shutout.

I like the deal.

Sparks is only 25. He can get better, and he’s dedicated. We’ve watched him stick around long after the practice whistle has blown to help the Leafs’ shooters put in extra work.

The past few Canada Days have brought a mad game of musical chairs for a free-agent backup. Why not beat the rush and limit the risk? Why not stick with the guy you know and have developed?

Dubas needs to save every penny he can to squeeze Mitch Marner (and Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson) under the cap.

A decent young backup who loves being a Leaf for less than $1 million? Sign ’em up.

4. Seeing Vancouver’s Josh Leivo score a key goal Wednesday against his former team brought to mind a conversation with Sparks months back, when Leivo was still a Leaf.

I asked the goaltender which shooter impresses him in practice. His answer wasn’t the one I was expecting.

"Josh Leivo. I don’t know if it’s technique or just raw skill. Release? Instinct? I don’t know what you call it, but it’s just really hard to pick up," Sparks said. "It’s not always about velocity or hardness. Sometimes it’s about placement and ability to get it off in tight spaces.

"Placement, speed, release, amount of time it’s on his stick, angle he’s shooting from in relation to his body — all those things make it deceptive."

After all those healthy scratches, good on Leivo for burning his old team in the only game he got to play them in the year he was traded away.

5. What percentage of this year’s memorable coach-press meetings have featured John Tortorella? Fifty? More?

"Get rid of the shootout," Tortorella pleaded this week, speaking my mind, and maybe yours too. "Just play the 3-on-3 until a team dies."

I want to see the Blue Jackets get it together and make the playoffs and embark on a run for two reasons that have nothing to do with Artemi Panarin’s dangles: (1) So more general managers embrace the bold move and push all-in like Jarmo Kekalainen did, and (2) so we get more big-stage Torts quotes.

6. New Leaf Nic Petan has a good sense of humour.

After scoring in his Toronto debut last Saturday versus Buffalo, the five-foot-nine forward suggested to the scrum’s cameramen that they might wish to angle their lens downward. And he caught himself from cussing on national TV when explaining how a player of his stature could body the gangly Rasmus Ristolainen.

"I just stuck out my as—uh, hip," Petan caught himself.

By way of his game-winning one-timer that night, Petan gave all the credit to fourth-line mate Trevor Moore and his own vocal chords.

"I was just yelling super, super loud. When we got to the bench, he said, ‘Good yell.’ And it was a phenomenal pass," Petan said. "I didn’t think much. I just smacked it, and it went in."

John Tavares on the new kid’s insta-impact: "Anytime anyone comes to a new environment, you’re trying to settle in and find your way. It’s good to get rewarded, to get some good feeling and some positivity. To get a big goal like that goes a long way."

Petan was a stud for Canada during the 2015 world junior championships, scoring a hat trick en route to a gold medal at Scotiabank Arena.

"Memory lane," he smiled.

7. Ted Lindsay was before my time, and there are many wonderful pieces about the man already out there to read.

I met him, briefly, at the 2015 NHL Awards. I was working the red carpet for Sportsnet and tasked with shooting some Instagram clips.

The way modern players, two generations removed, revered the man — small in stature, gigantic in presence — was striking. A cool moment when I caught an honoured P.K. Subban meeting Mr. Lindsay. Rest in peace:

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P.K. Subban meets Ted Lindsay #NHLAwards

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8. Big week for Brad Marchand, social-media maven.

First, Marchand won Twitter by chiming in on Mitch Marner’s next contract in what Dubas called "a master troll job." A virtual face lick, without the hepatitis risk of course.

Marner (RW) should be lining up head-to-head opposite Marchand (LW) when the Bruins and Leafs battle in Round 1 of the playoffs. Might as well get a head start on the mind games.

Then Marchand launched a new Instagram account to the tune of 38,000 immediate followers and began firing chirps back at Torey Krug. "If you are looking for good entertainment," Marchand writes, "be sure to follow."

What makes Marchand a lovable villain is that he can be self-deprecating, too:

9. If Marner’s next contract doesn’t meet Marchand’s projections, he can supplement it with some nice freelance work.

This week, Marner became the first Canadian athlete to have his face featured on his own signature Red Bull can. (He chugs the stuff for a second-intermission boost.)

Marner’s campaign with Intact Insurance has also been extended, with a second run of ad spots and a promotion from intern to "head of reassurance." (The Patrick Marleau cameo is a nice touch.)

10. I sat down with John Matisz this week for his Puck Pursuit podcast, and we chatted about who we think we’ll see squeeze into the East and West wild cards and how Erik Karlsson’s free agency might shake out. I also explain some of my theories heading into awards season.

Like Gerard Gallant at this time last March, Barry Trotz looks like a Jack Adams lock. He’s moulded a bad team into a good one. But I find this award tends to undervalue the coach guiding a good team to greatness. That’s Jon Cooper.

11. Good on the NHL Alumni Association for being progressive enough to partner with NEEKA Health Canada and start investigating the efficacy of cannabinoids as a treatment for post-concussion neurological diseases in former NHLers.

Roughly 100 ex-players have enrolled in this unprecedented study, set to begin this summer and wrap up in the summer of 2020. If the results are positive, why wouldn’t the NFL’s alumni follow suit?

"NHL alumni gave everything they had during their careers, but the physical consequences after they hang up their skates can be devastating for both players and their loved ones for the rest of their lives," NHLAA executive director Glenn Healy said.

"This study offers alumni the promise of help and hope, and we are excited to participate in what could become a true game-changer in allowing these professional athletes to finish strong."

It’s one thing to pursue money in damages; it’s another to start searching for a solution.

12. Trying to remember if I’ve watched this clip a million times or a zillion times…

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