Rasmus Sandin was young when he last played a meaningful hockey game.
That was 323 days ago. And at this point the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman can’t be sure when he’ll get his next one.
“Yeah we just need patience,” coach Sheldon Keefe said this week. “That’s the big thing.”
One can only imagine how much that patience has been tested during a pandemic, a trip through the NHL bubble as a practice player and the off-season of hard work back home in Sweden that preceded his arrival on the taxi squad.
Sandin has been waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more.
He’s hardly alone in the hockey world — or the wider universe, for that matter. The last 10-plus months have included a confluence of events that disrupted everyone’s life. But his situation underscores an increased challenge NHL teams are facing during an unusual season where they’re carrying more players on the margins of the roster and have fewer playing opportunities to spread among them.
That’s been true since the first day of shortened training camps that were designed to stretch conditioning rather than evaluate talent. Sandin was slotted as Toronto’s eighth defenceman after an off-season where T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen were signed to play ahead of him and there wasn’t really anything he could do to shift the balance of power.
“I think one of the really difficult parts of the way this camp … and season has gone is that players like Rasmus and in that situation — the younger players or the depth players — don’t get nearly the same opportunity they might get in a regular training camp and exhibition season,” said Keefe. “So it’s really hard. It’s hard to get them the opportunities, it’s hard to keep them sharp and fresh.”
Following a morning skate at Scotiabank Arena last week, Sandin and other members of the taxi squad stayed out for extra work with assistant coaches Manny Malhotra and Dave Hakstol. The 20-year-old was the last one on the ice, skating himself into exhaustion until the Zamboni literally drove out and forced him off.
With the Leafs enjoying a 6-2-0 start and carrying a completely healthy blue-line, it’s about all he can do. Work and wait. Keefe doesn’t seem inclined to get Sandin in as part of a rotation, especially while still trying to get a handle on what he has in the 27-year-old Lehtonen.
The Finn replaced Travis Dermott in the lineup for Tuesday’s 4-3 win in Calgary, making it the first time Dermott was a healthy scratch since April 2019.
This is the trickle-down effect of what’s broadly called “depth.” Every organization loves to have it when injuries arrive, but it comes with some built-in challenges, too.
Lehtonen was a highly coveted free agent who was sold on the opportunity in Toronto. However he’s dressed for just three of eight games so far, playing 6:41, 8:34 and 13:03. The Leafs like how he looks on the power play, according to Keefe, but aren’t yet sure how much he can handle at 5-on-5.
“I would still say we’re uncomfortable,” Keefe said Tuesday. “I think if he were speaking honestly, Mikko is probably a little uncomfortable too.”
Dermott can’t be feeling too secure, either, not after spending the last two and a half seasons as a NHL regular in Toronto. He’s averaging 11:22 in the early going after playing 17:19 last year.
Then there’s Sandin, who first cracked the Leafs lineup as a teenager out of training camp in October 2019 and has added strength and experience to go with 28 NHL games since. It might take a teammate’s injury to get his next one. He’s played just once since turning 20 on March 7 and isn’t too far off his 21st birthday.
Now the 29th pick from the 2018 draft has started seeing more contemporaries make their way into the NHL this season, from K’Andre Miller with the Rangers to Isac Lundestrom with the Ducks to Alexander Romanov with the Canadiens.
In theory, the Leafs will at least be able to get Sandin some games in the American Hockey League soon, although the provincial government hasn’t yet signed off on that league’s return-to-play plan. So the next Marlies game remains “TBD.”
For obvious reasons, the organization’s only priority at the NHL level is currently winning and they’ve been meeting that objective to start this 2021 season. This year is not about development in Toronto.
“We’re mindful of Rasmus and the fact that he’s here every day and his development and all of that kind of stuff is important,” said Keefe. “At the same time, we feel like with Mikko Lehtonen, just where he’s at, that he’s ahead in regards to getting in the lineup and getting going. So we want to be more mindful of Rasmus, for sure, but it’s been a challenge there with the lineup.”
That could change at a moment’s notice, which is why Keefe borrowed Steve Nash’s phrase and rebranded his extra players the “stay-ready squad.”
The Leafs had four goaltenders with NHL experience at the end of training camp and are now down to just two healthy options: Frederik Andersen and Michael Hutchinson. Long-term injuries to forwards Joe Thornton (rib fracture) and Nick Robertson (knee) — plus a one-game absence for Auston Matthews — have seen Adam Brooks, Travis Boyd, Joey Anderson, Pierre Engvall and Alexander Barabanov move up from the taxi squad to play.
Boyd scored in his debut against Calgary, while Brooks had a goal in his only game against Edmonton last Friday. They’re both veteran in-betweeners and spoke highly of the taxi squad experience.
“You never really know what this season’s going to hold and what kind of opportunities are going to be thrown at you, so you just have to make sure that you’re pushing yourself every day and make sure you come in happy and just work hard,” said Brooks. “So I think that’s what we’re all trying to do. We have a good group there and we all get along really well.
“It’s actually pretty fun.”
Sandin is the only original member of the taxi squad yet to get the call and he’s waited longer than any of them for that next game.
The third-year pro hasn’t spoken with reporters since the start of training camp, but was in great spirits when we chatted last month. He trained hard with William Nylander during the off-season and was giddy when I asked him what it would feel like to play again.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” said Sandin. “It’s going to be like a birthday or a Christmas or something like that.”
The celebration remains on hold.