Sometimes Rasmus Sandin is alone on the ice with a skating coach, other times he’s joined by William Nylander and his brother Alexander. Occasionally that group expands to include junior players and Stockholm-based pros like Emil Bemstrom and Andreas Borgman, but in this most unusual year Sandin is a constant.
It’s been so long since the Toronto Maple Leafs hopeful played a game that there were fans in the building when he did. Sandin says he can barely remember the feeling of performing in front of a full arena and it’s now nine months to the day since he played in Toronto’s 2-1 victory over Tampa with 19,124 people watching inside Scotiabank Arena.
He can’t wait for the next opportunity.
“It’s going to be like a birthday or a Christmas or something like that,” he said.
This has not been the year any of us imagined and it’s not followed the development plan the Leafs had sketched out for their top prospect. But that does not mean it hasn’t been without opportunity for Sandin.
After returning home to Sweden from his stay inside the NHL bubble, where he didn’t get a chance to play in the five-game series loss against Columbus, Sandin performed some strength tests to establish his baseline. He is now crushing those numbers thanks to another three-plus months in the gym.
The most important results can be seen in those Monday to Friday skating sessions, which have started to include battle drills as part of the ramp up towards the NHL season. Sandin and William Nylander, his good friend and Leafs teammate, have been going toe-to-toe and it’s resulted in a recent spate of broken Nylander sticks.
“I’m definitely a lot stronger. ... Even William can’t even handle me on the ice right now,” Sandin said with a playful chuckle.
He’s kidding, but not.
Sandin earned a six-game look with the Leafs out of last year’s training camp in large part due to his instincts. He’s a fluid skater and impressed the decision-makers inside the organization with his ability to close off plays through body positioning, angles and using his stick.
After dominating the world junior tournament, he saw another 22 NHL games on the battered Leafs blue line and felt much more comfortable than during his first brief taste. But the physical challenge was real. Sandin turned 20 in March and understood that he needed to add more muscle while “getting used to playing against the best players in the world.”
“Being in the [American Hockey League] you obviously play against really good players but then it’s a whole different thing playing in the NHL,” he said. “Everyone is so much smarter and there’s a couple extra pounds on some guys.”
Sandin feels more comfortable throwing his weight around now. He’s been able to measure his progress throughout the off-season against Nylander, who is four years older and 300 NHL games more experienced.
“He’s obviously a great player, so going against him, I can play in a little bit of a different way,” said Sandin. “Before I definitely was just more trying to have my stick and trying to be more in a good position. Now I can pair that up… with pushing other players from the puck a bit more and winning those battles.
“That’s why I feel like this [extended break] has helped me a lot on the ice.”
Sandin has been spending the weekdays staying at Nylander’s apartment in central Stockholm and may end up living with him in Toronto this season. They’ve grown close. Both are represented by the Playmaker Agency in Sweden and recognize their congruent skillsets as roommates.
“I heard he needs a chef and I’m going to have to cook for him,” said Sandin. “And I also need a taxi driver. We’re going to have to combine those things.”
It’s not yet a done deal, though, and a big test awaits when they make the trip back to Canada and have to serve quarantine together. At least Sandin thinks it will be a much better experience than the 14 days he spent alone in a Toronto hotel room in June, where he was unable to even open a window.
“I was climbing the walls at the end,” he said.
Even as the NHL and NHL Players’ Association work on finalizing details for training camp and the start of the 2020-21 season, he’s anxious to get back to Toronto as soon as possible.
And he’s ready for another unusual year.
Sandin understands the Leafs have a defensive logjam after an off-season where T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen were all signed as free agents, but he points out that teams will likely be carrying expanded rosters and taxi squads because of COVID-19 concerns and the compacted schedule. He may also end up playing some games in the American Hockey League.
His goals are simple: “Play all the games I can and make a bigger impact on the team this year -- try to help the team win more games. I feel prepared and I can’t wait to get camp started.”
Ask Sandin what he’s missed months during these 275 days and counting between games, he mentions the feeling of the battle and the camaraderie inside the team. The spirit in the locker room after a big win.
He also yearns for the energy fans bring to a building, which will almost certainly be missing from the games played in Canada this season because of provincial and local health restrictions.
“I would obviously love to play in front of packed arenas first off, but you have to take this thing seriously,” said Sandin. “Just getting back into a normal routine and just playing a game would be so much fun.”