Rasmus Sandin hoping for fresh opportunity in return to Maple Leafs

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Lead Off to discuss the latest injury news on Zach Hyman, and whether he believes the team will hold him out of the lineup until playoffs, or he'll want to get some regular season games in as preparation.

This is one instance where Rasmus Sandin would prefer not to have things happen in threes.

Set to play just his third game in a little more than 13 months on Tuesday night in Vancouver, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman has no fond memories of the previous two.

The first came on Feb. 8 and included just five minutes of ice time on seven shifts, then it was almost immediately followed by a demotion to the American Hockey League. The second came with the Toronto Marlies on Feb. 15 and saw Sandin block a shot on his third shift of the night, eventually forcing him from the game during the second intermission with what was later discovered to be a fracture in his foot.

It’s been a long eight weeks back to now, after a long off-season, after a brief stop in the summer bubble as a non-playing member of the Leafs, and after a long initial pause brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He’s had a tough go of things,” said teammate Justin Holl. “Obviously breaking his foot earlier in the year, it was kind of a weird break in a place where it wasn’t healthy to be on it all the time so it was a little bit longer recovery.”

The best Sandin can hope for is the start of a fresh opportunity, although there’s little to suggest he’s about to get an extended run ahead of the more established Travis Dermott or recently acquired Ben Hutton in the Leafs lineup.

Things are somewhat in flux with Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks likely to replace Zach Hyman (MCL sprain) and Ilya Mikheyev (undisclosed) against the Canucks on Tuesday, and Sandin getting the call on the blue line with what head coach Sheldon Keefe labelled “game-time decisions” elsewhere.

David Rittich starts in goal.

Keefe ultimately decided to keep William Nylander in Tuesday’s lineup after a mix-up led to Nylander being late for a Monday morning meeting. That initially had him headed for a scratch.

“Everything’s connected right? How you do something is how you do everything, generally speaking, and there’s a responsibility as teammates that everybody has here. That includes the coaching staff,” Keefe said. “I think it allowed us to have really good discussions and grow as a team here and I think we’re better for it, which is usually any time these kind of things happen that’s really what you’re looking for.

“It’s not about punishment, it’s about growth.”

The Leafs are carrying a lot of bodies right now -- including five goaltenders, with Frederik Andersen gradually working his way back to health -- and that means opportunities are scarce for those on the margins.

Ideally Sandin would be logging major AHL minutes right now, but he was a late addition to the Leafs road trip after the Marlies were recently shut down because of a positive COVID-19 test to a playing member of the team.

It’s been that kind of year.

“He hasn’t necessarily had more experience and game action just because of the circumstances that the world has brought on us here in the last little while, and then you pile on his injury, but he has grown,” Keefe said. “He’s an older man now and he’s continued to develop, he’s stronger, all these kind of things. He has a pathway here to become a full-time NHL player, it’s just a matter of whether he can do it in this short timeframe that we have and the circumstances that are in front of us.”

With the regular season starting to wind down towards the playoffs, Keefe is experimenting. On Sunday he shook up his top two defensive pairings — putting T.J. Brodie alongside Jake Muzzin, and Holl with Morgan Rielly — and on Tuesday he’ll get another look at Sandin.

The Leafs are trying to prepare themselves for any curveball that might come their way in the playoffs.

Sandin arguably sits eighth on the depth chart right now, but it’s not hard to envision a scenario where he’s getting called on to play in May or June. Just getting in any game at this point is a milestone after everything the 21-year-old has been through.

“I know that he was disappointed with [his fractured foot], but he came to the rink every day with a positive attitude and had one sole focus, which was getting better and being ready to contribute,” Holl said. “I’m really happy that he’s getting an opportunity tonight.

“He’s a great player and I’m sure he’ll show it.”

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