As the Maple Leafs entered their final full week of training camp on Monday, head coach Mike Babcock had separated his players into two groups – one primarily made up of NHL players, and one primarily made up of bubble players. Rasmus Sandin was slotted into the former group, which is the best indication yet that the 19-year-old defenceman is making the right impression on the Leafs’ brass.
And with only 10 days to go before Toronto's regular season opens, Sandin can fully appreciate the opportunity he’s been given to excel.
“[I have to] just play hard,” Sandin surmised on Monday of his strategy going forward. “Not be very shy out there, take a little bit of space and be myself, play how I’ve always been playing. That’s why I’m here and I’m going to keep doing that and try to improve that.”
Drafted in the first-round, 29th overall, by the Leafs in 2018, Sandin had a breakout season for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies last year, registering 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 44 games.
He spent the summer in Sweden training with Leafs winger William Nylander and the fruits of that labour have shown up early and often in Leafs’ camp.
“He’s been outstanding,” said Morgan Rielly. “He’s the perfect example of a guy who worked hard in the off-season to prepare, came into camp, had confidence and played really well. It’s nice to see a guy like that really compete and play well. We love having him, he’s a great player, he’s got a really bright future and we’ll just try to support him.”
“I [do] feel a little bit more confident,” Sandin added. “I know what’s going on a little bit outside the rink. I know where I’m going to play this year, at least I’m going to stay in Toronto, and that feels very good. I’m more confident coming into this camp knowing what’s going on.”
Having someone like Rielly, who first suited up on the Leafs' blueline at age 19, looking out for him has been a huge boost for Sandin as well.
“He’s a really good guy that talks to us to give us tips on where we can improve, so obviously I’m trying to learn from him,” Sandin said of Rielly. “I’m trying to look and see what he’s doing on the ice and how he’s taking care of himself. He’s one of the best defensive players right now I would say.”
In addition to Rielly, Sandin has been bonding with defence partner Martin Marincin. For the more mobile 5-foot-11 Sandin, playing opposite the 6-foot-5 Marincin is proving to be a great match.
“First off, he’s a big, big guy, so he’s helping me on the ice,” Sandin said. “He knows what drills we’re doing on the ice, so he’s helping me like that. [I’m] talking a lot with him off the ice too and he’s just a great guy, so he’s been helping me for sure.”
Babcock has heaped praise on Marincin recently, saying on Monday the veteran looks like “he wants to play for the Leafs.” Toronto brought the 27-year-old back on a one-year contract in June after he was a healthy scratch for large portions of last season, his fourth with the organization.
“It’s never been about ability. It’s never been about skating. It’s never been about reading the game. It’s been about confidence,” Babcock said. “And he’s got thicker and thicker and more and more confident.”
With Travis Dermott (shoulder) slated to miss at least the first 12-14 games of the regular season, Marincin and Sandin could end up getting a look as Toronto’s third pairing to start the year. But before that happens, Babcock cautions there is more evaluation still left to be done of Sandin.
“When you’re around good players, it helps you get better for sure,” Babcock said. “The pace in practice today, it takes another jump. There are a lot of steps, and we’re going to watch him as he goes.”
Before his standout performance in Saturday’s 5-3 preseason loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Trevor Moore hadn’t done much to draw Babcock's attention in camp. But just one game (and one nice goal) can change a lot.
“He didn’t [impress me] first at all,” Babcock admitted. “Him and I talked about that. I welcomed him back after last game. He was so good last game. That’s what he is.”
In defining what exactly makes Moore go, Babcock referenced another of his young wingers, Dmytro Timashov, and how he can learn from what Moore does at his best.
Timashov has yet to make his NHL debut after being drafted in the fifth round, 125th overall, by Toronto in 2015, but Babcock sees his potential to do so if he can emulate how Moore has made his jump from undrafted free agent in 2016 to NHLer.
“They haven’t scored a lot at this level. I don’t know if they ever will,” Babcock said. “But they can penalty kill. They can transport the puck. They can be heavy down low. They can get it back for the good players. They can play against really good players. They play with pace and they seem to always be ready to go. So if [Timashov] can do that, he just improves himself and can move up in the lineup.”
Both Moore and Timashov skated with the Leafs’ NHL-heavy lineup in Monday’s practice. Moore was promoted to Toronto’s projected third line with Ilya Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot, while Timashov skated on the fourth line with Frederik Gauthier and Jason Spezza.
For the second time in less than a week, Michal Neuvirth is missing time with the Leafs.
Scheduled to play in Montreal on Monday in tandem with Michael Hutchinson, Neuvirth wasn’t present at the team’s morning skate, and Babcock said after Joseph Woll would be taking his place for the exhibition game.
“Neuvy wasn’t feeling up to it, so he’s not going today,” is all Babcock would say about Neuvirth’s status.
Neuvirth is signed to a professional tryout with the Leafs, and meant to be competing with Hutchinson for the club’s backup job behind Frederik Andersen. But last week, while the team was in St. John’s, N.L., to open training camp, Neuvirth participated in just two days of on-ice activities before an undisclosed injury sidelined him from practice until the club returned to Toronto.
After getting in a full session with the team, Neuvirth finally made his preseason debut in Saturday’s loss to Buffalo, posting 20 saves and a .909 save percentage. It was the 31-year-old’s first NHL action of any kind since Jan. 3, after which injuries derailed the rest of his season with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Despite the long layoff, Neuvirth said on Saturday he went into the game “calm” and “confident” and didn’t betray any hint of issues to come.
“It was good to play periods. Body felt good. I’m excited for another opportunity,” he said. “There are still some mistakes I made, but I thought it was a solid effort.”