TORONTO -- We’ve likely seen the last of Rasmus Sandin for the regular season.
Sheldon Keefe confirmed that the 21-year-old defenceman will be replaced by Ben Hutton for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, calling it a salary cap-related decision, and it’s believed those same cap maneuvers are expected to keep Sandin sidelined for the games in Ottawa and Winnipeg next week as well.
That would exclude Sandin’s salary from the Leafs daily cap accounting and provide them with enough space to activate Riley Nash off long-term injured reserve. Nash has been recovering a knee sprain since coming over in a trade with Columbus on April 9.
What Keefe made abundantly clear is that the roster decision wasn’t related to any concern over Sandin’s performance.
“Rasmus has played very well for us and we’ve really liked a lot of things about his game and what he brings to our team,” Keefe said after Friday’s practice. “His situation is actually more related to the salary cap than it is anything else.”
Sandin had appeared in eight straight games for the Leafs after barely playing at all for the prior 13 months. He’s registered four assists this season and recently spent time manning the top power-play unit.
With Zach Bogosian’s shoulder injury expected to sideline him for the rest of the month, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sandin step right back into the lineup for the start of the Leafs first-round series because the salary cap won’t apply then.
In the meantime, he’ll have a chance to put in extra work, and Sandin spent a good 30 minutes after Friday’s practice doing an extra skills session.
Hutton has only played one game since being acquired from Anaheim at the trade deadline and is basically injury insurance for the post-season. Keefe appreciates the way the veteran of 376 NHL games has carried himself while waiting for an opportunity like the one he’ll get over the next week.
“I think the first thing I like is just his personality,” said Keefe. “He’s another guy that’s pretty easy-going. Things don’t rattle or bother him too much, he just goes about his business and is a good guy to have around in that sense.
“He’s a guy that’s played a significant amount of time in the NHL and has come in here and hasn’t played very much, yet hasn’t been a distraction, hasn’t been an issue.”
Nash and Zach Hyman (sprained MCL) both again skated in red no-contact jerseys at Friday’s practice and seem to be trending towards returning next week.
Frederik Andersen is scheduled to make another start with the Toronto Marlies on Saturday afternoon as he continues his LTI conditioning loan in the American Hockey League.
Andersen will get the full game against the Manitoba Moose after seeing 31 minutes of action against them on Thursday, stopping 12 of 14 shots.
“That’s part of the progression for him,” said Keefe.
It’s not clear how soon Andersen might factor into the Leafs' decision-making again. He last played for them on March 19 when a lingering knee issue became too much of a burden to continue grinding through and he’s only eligible to stay with the Marlies through Tuesday under the terms of his conditioning loan.
There is a provision in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement that allows for those loans to be extended and it’s unclear if the Leafs could even create the cap room needed to activate Andersen off LTI if he felt fit to return before the end of the regular season.
“This stint with the Marlies is just about him getting back into game action and getting back to building up his workload to be ready to play NHL games,” said Keefe, who declined to name his playoff starter when asked on Thursday morning.
MARNER AND MATTHEWS
There was the distinct feeling of hope in the air back on June 24, 2016 when Mitch Marner attended an open-air Luke Bryan concert at Budweiser Stage.
A fourth-overall pick by his hometown team the year before, Marner had yet to even make his Leafs debut when the organization grabbed Matthews with the No. 1 selection while he was at that show. So when the enthusiastic concert-goers started an “Aus-ton! Matt-hews!” chant, he got swept up in the excitement, too.
“The kid I was and am still, I was in the middle of it chanting as well,” said Marner. “[We laugh] about it now. I’ve told Tony that story a couple times.”
They’ve since become close friends and the NHL’s most dynamic duo outside of Edmonton. Entering play Friday, Marner sat third overall in league scoring with 66 points while Matthews was tied for sixth at 64 points.
Whereas previous coach Mike Babcock was reluctant to play them together -- wanting each to drive his own line -- Keefe has kept them almost exclusively together. Matthews has played 715 of his 821 minutes at 5-on-5 with Marner at his side this season, which has allowed John Tavares and William Nylander to consistently form two-thirds of the second line behind them.
“In terms of Matthews and Marner, you know there’s been times where I of course have been a little bit tempted to try [separating them], and mix it up a little bit, but I think there’s just been such chemistry between the two and it brings some real consistency in terms of the threat of offence to our team and I think it really causes a lot of problems for the opposition to have to think about,” Keefe explained.
“I just really felt comfortable with the chemistry of those pairs and felt that even if I would go away from it for a little bit it would never be anything permanent. So I just didn’t feel like it was overly necessary and obviously the results have been very positive on both fronts. I’ve liked what both pairs have brought for our team.”
Grooming always becomes a hot topic when the playoffs arrive, and Marner is setting a tone for the Leafs that’s sparked some imitators.
He’s sporting a flowing mullet these days and what appears to be the early growth on a mustache. Take a look.
The Leafs have a barber with them inside their bubble and teammates have started to request the Mitch Marner Mullet when jumping in his chair.
“A little Joe Dirt,” said Morgan Rielly, when asked to describe Marner’s current look. “I think it’s good, he’s got a nice mullet. If you look closely, Joe [Thornton] actually has the same thing going and I know Jack [Campbell] did something else.
“So he’s a bit of a trendsetter that way.”