Maple Leafs’ faith in seamless Sandin yields instant, elite contributions

Rasmus Sandin netted his first NHL goal as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Nashville Predators 5-2.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rasmus Sandin sat in the empty visitor’s locker room at Bridgestone Arena and posed for a photo that will likely hang somewhere in his house for the rest of time.

“I’m gonna remember that for the rest of my life, for sure,” he said after scoring the first goal of an NHL career that holds so much promise and possibility.

The silky-smooth 19-year-old defenceman has arrived on the scene here with a flash. He’s made game-changing plays while compiling six points in 10 NHL games and still acknowledges that it’s somewhat “surreal” to think he’s earned a regular job with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

You’d never know it by his poise and elite instincts.

“What jumps off the page for me is just his hockey sense,” said veteran Jason Spezza. “His skills are obviously really good, but I think his hockey sense is what his best quality [is]. He sees the game really well.

“If you’re open, he gets you the puck. If you’re not, he hangs onto it that extra second. And that stuff you can’t really teach a guy, and to have that at a young age I think that shows great promise. Physically, he’s going to get stronger and more confident. But the hockey sense is there and that’s a special quality.”

The first year of Sandin’s entry-level contract officially kicked in with him playing a 10th game and it’s telling how little debate or discussion surrounded that decision. With Morgan Rielly (broken foot) on the shelf until at least March, Sandin is unquestionably one of the organization’s six best options and it’s clear that he’ll be given a run of games here to start establishing himself as a bonafide NHLer.

These are still early days, but it seems entirely possible that he’ll play well enough to leave the coaching staff with a difficult decision when Rielly’s ready to return. If he’s got another gear beyond this one, there will be a compelling argument that he deserves playing time even with a completely healthy lineup.

Sheldon Keefe had the option to remove Sandin with Jake Muzzin returning Monday, but took out Martin Marincin instead. The head coach indicated that the Leafs view this as an opportunity to give their top prospect valuable experience.

That faith was rewarded almost immediately.

Sandin sent William Nylander in for a breakaway and the game’s first goal with a ridiculously skilled play. The puck was on his tape for less than a second deep in Toronto’s zone before he found Nylander with a 100-foot flip pass.

You can’t teach instincts like that.

“I saw him looking back, so I just tried to put it out and I was also in front of the net so I just had to make a play pretty quick there,” said Sandin. “It was great that it worked out.”

His first career NHL goal gave the Leafs a 3-1 lead and wound up as the game-winner in a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators — something made more notable by the fact Muzzin told reporters he put money up on the board for the teammate who scored it.

Sandin was the beneficiary of some good fortune on that one, hanging back in the zone and having the puck squirt out to him at the top of the circle. He was ready to fire when it did, and he fired it past Pekka Rinne.

“I’m pumped for him to score the goal,” said Keefe. “It was a big goal for us at that point in the game as well. I’m not surprised by the poise, I’ve come to expect that from him.

“I think we all have.”

Perhaps the biggest testament to the young man is that it just looks and feels like he belongs here. He’s already immensely popular among his teammates and hasn’t ever really left the impression that the moment or stage is too big for him.

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Remember that this month started with him dominating the world junior tournament for Sweden and included a return to the American Hockey League before Rielly got injured blocking a shot.

Now he’s casually dancing around the offensive zone in NHL games as though he’s still playing against kids his own age. And he’s one of just three teenaged defencemen to see this much NHL action this season, joining countrymen Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo) and Adam Boqvist (Chicago).

“He comes up here and he plays with poise,” said Nylander, who snagged the souvenir puck after Sandin’s first goal. “The way he holds onto the puck; he makes small little plays, too. How smooth he is up on the blue line, it’s tremendous to see.”

“Smart player with the puck,” said Muzzin. “Very poised for a young fella back there.”

It’s hard to believe that Toronto snagged Sandin with the 29th pick in the 2018 entry draft. He was the 13th defenceman called to the stage in Dallas that year. And as the Leafs head back to American Airlines Center to face the Stars on Wednesday he’s already established himself as a contributor.

They’ve got something special with this one.

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