Preseason or not, having forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alex Kerfoot taking shifts on the blueline is far from ideal for a Toronto Maple Leafs squad with Stanley Cup aspirations.
So it was with an equal measures of delight and relief that the Buds welcomed 22-year-old defenceman Rasmus Sandin back onto the ice at training camp on Sunday, even as he attempted to shake off any remaining jet lag after flying in from his native Sweden less than 48 hours prior.
After holding out through the start of camp, the restricted free agent and his representative, Lewis Gross, reached out to Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas last Thursday and accepted the team’s two-year, US$2.8-million offer.
After his first preseason practice at the Ford Performance Centre, where he was paired with veteran Jake Muzzin, Sandin admitted that watching head coach Sheldon Keefe attempting to plug holes on his blueline in last week’s win over Montreal had factored into his decision. Both Jordie Benn and Carl Dahlstrom were injured during the game, while countryman Timothy Liljegren was already out until early November after hernia surgery.
“Well, I saw Calle Jarnkrok and I saw Kerfoot on D so I needed to get here I thought,” Sandin joked Sunday. “But now I’m just super excited to be back.”
Though he registered 16 points in 51 regular-season games last year, Sandin was lauded for his versatility, with the left-handed shooter often being employed as a right-sided defenceman, which has been something of a trouble spot for the team in recent seasons. However, better late than never, his arrival in camp has eased some of the pressure on Keefe’s blueline, particularly given the unit is playing in front of a brand-new goaltending tandem in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.
“I spoke with him about that and getting those reps. I know he’s done it before at different times,” Keefe said about the youngster playing on the right-hand side. “But we’ll see how it all shakes out here. We’ve got a week to get through here and three exhibition games to get through.”
The next test is Monday night in Montreal, though Keefe confirmed that the game at the Bell Centre has come too soon for the 2018 first-round pick.
Not that Sandin is far away from getting up to full speed. The native of Uppsala, about 70 or so kilometres north of Stockholm, said he has been taking part in daily skates Monday to Friday with a group that included fellow Swede and Maple Leafs teammate William Nylander. The two have also been regular golf companions over the summer.
Sandin said that playing golf was just one of the things he did to take his mind off his contract situation.
“It was definitely stressful,” he said of not having a deal. “You know, from the beginning of the summer, I thought it was going be done every single day and every single week, but, now we’re here it’s the most important thing.”
Entering his fourth NHL season, with just 88 regular-season and five playoff games under his belt, Sandin was well aware of the need to be in camp, particularly with opportunities available to him given the team’s patchwork defence. But he also knows that the hard work is just beginning for someone looking to permanently break into a defensive unit that gave up the ninth-fewest shots in the NHL last term.
“I don’t expect to get a bigger role or whatever because we have such good Ds, so it’s something I have to prove,” he said. “I need to play really, really good every single day to get a good role here.”
Though he admitted his first day at practice went “better than I thought,” his injection of skill didn’t go unnoticed. Mitch Marner, who knows all about protracted contract negotiations himself, said Sandin’s impact on the team’s play can’t be understated.
“Just the poise and calmness he has with the puck in any zone,” Marner said. “He can make a lot of great plays, makes people around him better and we’re excited to get that piece back.”
Sandin put the extra time in Sweden to good use, though, grinding through extra gym work to bulk up to what he reckons is 194 pounds. He was listed at 178 in last year’s media guide.
Fellow Swede Pierre Engvall, who is gradually working his way back to playing shape after twisting his ankle during an on-ice skating session in Sweden this summer, said he subscribes to a far more gradual approach to putting on muscle. However, he admitted his teammate has the look of someone who’s been hitting the gym.
“Maybe a little bit,” Engvall said. “[Sandin’s] got some more upper body, looks like, so we’ll see how it all looks on the ice.”
When he wasn’t busy training or playing golf, Sandin said he started going for nature walks, deliberately disconnecting from technology.
“I was actually looking for what you call a chanterelle [mushrooms] or whatever in the woods and stuff,” he said, while quickly pointing out that bears aren’t a factor in the southern part of Sweden. “I definitely didn’t look at my phone. I was just focusing on finding some chanterelles out there.”
That woodland foraging helped fuel another burgeoning – and time-consuming – hobby.
“I got into doing some cooking and stuff as well. So, that was a big help. I didn’t have to go buy [mushrooms] at the store.”