TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin just needed an opportunity. And now he’s got one.
The Maple Leafs defenceman was thrust into the spotlight on Friday when Toronto announced veteran blueliner Zach Bogosian will miss a minimum of four weeks with a shoulder injury he suffered in Tuesday’s loss to Vancouver. Sandin replaced Bogosian on the Leafs’ third pairing in Thursday’s win over the Jets in Winnipeg, and will get a first crack at holding onto that post next to Travis Dermott moving ahead.
While the 21-year-old Sandin won’t make up for everything Toronto loses with Bogosian out, it is a long-awaited chance for Sandin to finally play a regular NHL role.
“[Zach’s] really come in and [provided] stability on our third pair, brought a little bit of a different look and feel to our defence, and he had the experience of winning a Stanley Cup last year with Tampa,” coach Sheldon Keefe said on a post-practice Zoom call Friday in Winnipeg. “You're going to feel that absence. We have remained incredibly healthy on defence all season long but this does now provide [Sandin] more of an opportunity here to play down the stretch. We have an abundance of depth that we feel pretty good about here.”
Bogosian was hurt in the second period of Tuesday’s game when he seemed to trip over his own feet and fall hard into the end boards. The 30-year-old skated off under his own power but did not return, and a recent MRI revealed the extent of damage to his shoulder.
Sandin happened to be Bogosian’s partner that night, playing in his second NHL game of the season and first since Feb. 8. He saw only five minutes of ice time in that Feb. 8 game and was sent to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies shortly after. It was in the Marlies’ season opener on Feb. 15 that Sandin broke his foot, and was back off the ice entirely.
Between tedious rehab sessions and ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns in Ontario during that stretch, Sandin had to work hard to find silver linings.
“I'm a guy that wants everything kind of quick, I want it now,” Sandin said. “For me it was easiest to just take it day-by-day. But it was a struggle. When you're hurt, you're going to the rink, do your rehab and work in the gym getting treated. And then when you go back home, there's not much to do right now during the [COVID] situation that we have; it's just lay on the couch and watch TV. That was tough mentally.”
Even as Sandin inched closer to a return, the Leafs had no open lineup spot for him to take. That was the problem earlier this season, too. Sandin skated in 28 games for Toronto last season, tallying one goal and eight points, but was a healthy scratch for Toronto’s first 12 contests this year. He was then limited as the Leafs' seventh defenceman in his one NHL appearance prior to being reassigned to the Marlies.
Keefe opted to bring Sandin on the Leafs’ current four-game road swing though with the intention of getting him in a game. When that happened on Tuesday, it had been more than two months since Sandin last played a professional hockey game, and the initial rust was undeniable.
“I think my first shift I was trying to gap up and do everything right from the beginning, and I gave up a two-on-one,” he said. “So after that I was trying to just build into it slowly and I think I got into it pretty quick.”
Sandin played 16:14 that night, and was back in beside Dermott when the Leafs halted their five-game skid with a 5-3 win over Winnipeg on Thursday. Toronto will get another crack at the Jets on Saturday, with Sandin and Dermott projected to be the third pairing.
Going up against one of the more physical teams in the North Division has shown Sandin just how much his rehab efforts in the gym are paying off.
“I have a little bit more pop overall in my legs during the whole game,” he said. “I don't feel like I get tired as quick as I did before. Handling big guys, your body gets tired, so I don't feel like I'm getting tired as quick. And down in the corners, I think I can battle and handle the guys a lot better than I could last year. I feel stronger and it helps me in all parts of the game, as long as I maintain my mobility and being able to move out there.”
While Sandin has earned a first look in Bogosian old spot, there’s a line of players behind him hoping to swipe it. Timothy Liljegren and Martin Marincin have been on Toronto’s taxi squad for much of the regular season, and the Leafs acquired Ben Hutton at the trade deadline for depth at times like this.
Liljegren, 21, hasn’t appeared in an NHL game this season but has impressed Keefe at practice. If Toronto can make the money work, Keefe would like to see Liljegren get into one of the Leafs’ final nine regular season contests. But CapFriendly projects Toronto to have just over $120,000 in cap space available as of Friday afternoon.
“We have some salary cap issues that have made it hard to get [Liljegren] in and get him involved,” Keefe said. “But that doesn't necessarily mean that we don't believe in him as a player. He's older, he's more confident. No different than Sandin. He comes in and looks confident, looks stronger. We like a lot about Timothy and his development.”
How Keefe manages the Leafs lineup from here will be an exercise in balance as it is. Toronto is just three weeks away from its regular season finale, and Frederik Andersen (lower-body) and Zach Hyman (sprained MCL) are also on the injured list. Both Andersen and Hyman are expected be back sooner than Bogosian, but in the meantime Keefe still has to establish what Toronto’s best look will be when the postseason begins.
“We're running out of games here, and you've got the fact that you're trying to make sure your group is ready to go here for the playoffs,” Keefe said. “So we're going to [handle] all these types of things. And just like any other injury that we've had throughout the season, our team has just found a way to press on and this will be no different.”