In the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening games, Rasmus Sandin’s play has rarely been attention-grabbing.
That’s far from a scathing indictment. Most 19-year-old defencemen would be utterly exposed at the NHL level, and the fact Sandin is here at all — and not filling up a blooper reel — is a major accomplishment. That said, he’s been easy to miss at times. On Saturday, for instance, the rookie posted a line comprised of zeroes: no goals, assists, points, penalty minutes, plus/minus, shots, hits, or blocks in 10:02 minutes on the ice.
Lines like that are awfully rare, especially in such eventful games, but the last number there might tell the most important story about Sandin’s start. The young Swede has simply not been seeing much of the ice. In his NHL debut, he played 8:58, and in his first three games he averaged just over 10 minutes a contest with every second of ice time coming at even strength.
Although those numbers are awfully low — like fourth-line grinder low — it’s not shocking to see Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock take a while to warm up to a player, especially one as unproven as Sandin. The dynamic seemed to change in the team’s 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Monday, though.
Babcock threw his young blueliner out there for 15:20, far more than in the prior three games. In the third period with the game on the line he paired Sandin with Morgan Rielly for a shift. The coach even put the rookie out on the final penalty kill of the night, one that needed to succeed to give the Maple Leafs any chance of a comeback. His 1:41 of short-handed time was the first special teams experience of his career.
Now, there’s a chance this is an isolated occurrence and Babcock goes back to keeping Sandin’s minutes exceedingly short. There’s also a chance that it represents a mini turning point where the coach begins to lean on him a little more. Even 15:20 is a pretty modest night for a defender, but it’s a start.
The question then becomes whether what Babcock saw would make him want to unglue Sandin from the bench, and nothing in the game provides a definite answer. The 19-year-old did have a few rough moments in the game, such as taking his first penalty after getting tied up with Ivan Barbashev....
... and wiping out and losing his stick in the corner on a puck retrieval in the third - leading to sustained pressure for the Blues.
On the other hand, he had a couple of promising moments as well. For instance, Sandin showed off his trademark composure dealing with a puck that took a wicked bounce and came in front of the Maple Leafs net.
The rookie also orchestrated his most promising offensive sequence to date, walking in on the net after William Nylander fed him the puck off a won faceoff in the offensive zone.
Sandin hasn’t played enough at this level to make definitive judgments about where his game is at or where it’s going. What will be revealed relatively quickly is what Babcock thinks of the young defender. From Sandin’s raw ice time, to the defence partners he draws, to the special teams he’s included in, how the rookie is deployed will be a strong indicator of how Babcock feels he’s performing.
On Monday, that deployment changed a little bit. When the Maple Leafs face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday we’ll get a better idea of whether that alteration was a just a blip, or the beginning of a real adjustment.
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