TORONTO — Fresh off the second hat trick of his NHL career, there Auston Matthews stood Tuesday talking about being excited for the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ next game.
Not because he’s so anxious to keep his red-hot scoring run going.
Nope, he’s just that pumped about the prospect of seeing 19-year-old defenceman Rasmus Sandin step back on the ice.
"He’s fun to watch. He’s fun to be out there with," said Matthews. "Even when he was up with us earlier in the season he shows so many glimpses of how good he is and how good he’s going to be.
"He made an immediate impact for us tonight. I’m looking forward to next game, to see him play again, because it’s a blast."
Remember that Matthews is not a man who suffers fools. He’s never been the kind of interview who fills a reporter’s notebook with empty platitudes just for the sake of it.
In this instance, he was expressing genuine enthusiasm about seeing a big piece of the Leafs’ future arrive a little earlier than expected after Sandin collected two primary assists in the opening period of his second stint as an NHLer.
And he wasn’t alone.
"I don’t think it’s surprising people to be honest," said Mitch Marner. "We saw him at world juniors, you saw the success he had there and you saw how (well) he can walk a blue line and kind of fake people out.
"When he has (the puck) in the D-zone, he’s got very good poise with it, he’s not rushing plays, he’s looking for the right opportunity to make a play."
In this way, Sandin is built exactly for how Sheldon Keefe wants his Leafs to play. He can be an important link in the chain for Toronto’s elaborate game of keep-away.
The head coach even showed confidence in the rookie by tossing him directly into Morgan Rielly’s spot on the second power-play unit. From the top of the umbrella, Sandin picked up his second assist against the New Jersey Devils by getting a shot through traffic that Zach Hyman deftly tipped past Louis Domingue just before the first intermission.
There were some parallels with an earlier John Tavares goal that the captain deflected home after Sandin danced across the blue line and feathered a shot into the slot area.
More than simply producing offence, though, the biggest question Sandin must answer with his play is whether he’s ready to handle a steady diet of minutes at this level.
Injuries to Rielly and Jake Muzzin forced the Leafs into calling him up now — adding an extra degree of chaos to a crazy few weeks for the world junior star — and Sandin more than held his own while playing a career-best 16:12 during a comfortable 7-4 win over the Devils.
Still, he acknowledged the challenge built into his new job assignment, particularly in his own end of the rink.
"I don’t think I’m the biggest guy, so I kind of have to think a little bit more and be a little bit smarter I feel like than the other players," said Sandin. "I just try to have good positioning, good stick and try to be good in that way."
It should be made a touch easier by the six-game stint he got with the Leafs in October and everything that’s happened since — another 21 games logging monster minutes for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the top defenceman honours he won while leading Sweden’s world junior team to a bronze medal.
Sandin still hasn’t had much of an opportunity to process that tournament (or find a spot for his medal, which is still sitting on his kitchen counter) because he went directly from the Czech Republic to a Marlies road trip in Texas, to this NHL recall, which arrived Sunday night by way of a phone call from assistant GM Laurence Gilman after Rielly blocked a shot on the inside of his left foot.
"(It’s) been a little tiring," said Sandin. "I mean I was in Czech like eight days ago or something. A long flight back here, a little jet lag, and then I was home for a day or two and then flew to Texas and then got called up.
"I just got back last night."
In that context, he could hold his head high.
Sandin played a measurable role in helping the Leafs move past an 8-4 pounding at the hands of the Florida Panthers and should get a run of games here to find his footing. And his efforts were rewarded by teammate Michael Hutchinson, who passed off the team’s "game ball" to him in the dressing room afterward.
If there was any doubt about how he’d be embraced or accepted, they were answered quickly. The Leafs already see him as one of their own.
"Well, I think his game matches ours very well," said Marner.