TORONTO – Who cares if the assignment meant patrolling his weak side?
Lefty Rasmus Sandin, 21, saw his name scribbled to the right of Morgan Rielly on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top pairing and saw only the benefits.
“It’s a huge opportunity for me,” the 21-year-old said. “Our games could fit really well. He’s a guy I’m looking at and trying to take a lot of stuff from. In that way, we can read off each other very well. We’re probably going to know what the other guy will do with the puck and where he’s going to go when he doesn’t have it. It can be a really good pair.”
Good? Not yet, certainly.
With lefthanded top-four fixture Jake Muzzin (concussion) sidelined indefinitely and a run of six straight games against non-playoff teams kicking off Toronto’s March schedule, coach Sheldon Keefe has the leeway and the inclination to experiment with his D pairings ahead of the trade deadline.
Might as well see what you got, so you can determine what you need.
The lefty-lefty thing didn’t exactly wow us when Keefe tried Sandin with Muzzin last month. And the last time Keefe tried matching Rielly with another offensive-minded blueliner — Tyson Barrie in 2020 — that duo stumbled to the point of breakup.
Typically, “Green Light” Rielly’s most brillaint performances have come to the left of security blankets like Ron Hainsey and, now, T.J. Brodie.
Linking him with emerging talent and his power-play understudy Sandin gives a fresh wrinkle to the back end and a new challenge for the confident youngster.
“Now you’ve got them both and you can pair them with, say, the [Auston] Matthews line in offensive faceoffs and things like that,” Keefe said “So, we’re curious to see how that plays out.”
Curiosity can be risky. Ask the cat.
The Rielly-Sandin combo played out to an early highlight goal but wholly concerning results in Wednesday’s ugly 5-1 loss to an offensively challenged Buffalo Sabres roster.
Responding quickly to Jacob Bryson’s opening power-play marker, Sandin popped open in the O-zone to convert a crisp passing sequence by Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting in the first period. Sandin then used his feet to draw a hooking penalty from Kyle Okposo in the second.
But the Sabres jumped back ahead in the second when Victor Olofsson outmuscled Sandin for position net-front and whacked one in.
Later in the same frame, it was Sabres’ leading scorer Tage Thompson outdueling Sandin in the slot, then firing a puck past Petr Mrazek.
Jeff Skinner burned Sandin on a solo rush in the third period and snapped a puck past Mrazek that essentially tucked the night away.
Kyle Okposo added to the misery off one of Toronto’s many lost battles in its own end.
Sandin and Rielly each finished dash-2.
Keefe’s experiment blew up like a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano at a Grade 4 science fair.
A thought: Perhaps the rugged Ilya Lyubushkin, a natural righty, should get a trial with Rielly to balance out the top four with some size and net-front nastiness.
We certainly won’t staple the entirety of Toronto’s loss to a lesser light on the configuration of the defence.
Buffalo did a fine job clogging middle ice, no Leafs forward scored, and the NHL’s top-rated power-play extended its drought to a season-worst seven games. Which is hardly the way to welcome back the first Scotiabank Arena full of fans in 81 days.
The Maple Leafs have an acknowledged issue of giving below-standard showings against opponents who are miles out contention, and the Sabres arrived in town 34 points back of their hosts.
“We’ve maybe played down to their level at times,” admitted Justin Holl, between listless losses to Montreal and Buffalo.
“You’re going to have dips in your play, and you can talk about it, but sometimes you need a real slap in the face to kind of get it dialed in — and that’s how I felt about [the] Montreal game,” Keefe said Wednesday morning.
“As terrible as we played in that game, and as poorly as we felt, I felt pretty confident that some of our best hockey of the season would be coming right around the corner. And that’s kind of how I feel about how we’ve played of late.”
For their sake, the Maple Leafs should take this effort against the Sabres as another slap in the face.
Fox’s Fast 5
• For those jacked up about the possibility of the Maple Leafs calling Columbus and renting a certain legendary Leaf’s son by the trade deadline to complement their second line, consider this.
Max Domi: $5.3 million cap hit, nine goals, 16 assists, 25 points, minus-1
Alexander Kerfoot: $3.5 million cap hit, eight goals, 30 assists, 38 points, plus-14
(And, yes, the Blue Jackets were among 10 teams scouting this game in-person.)
• John Tavares’s goal drought has stretched to 14 games and is now the longest since his rookie campaign (2009-10).
• Holl, coming into this game having exploded for five points in his past two: “I’ve been making good plays, but it’s probably not sustainable.” A self-aware chuckle.
• Nick Robertson’s ice time shrunk to 5:28 during Monday’s win in Washington, begging questions.
If the goal is to develop the 20-year-old prospect, would he not be better served skating in all situations in the American League?
And if the goal is to showcase the shooter’s talents for a potential trade, is that being accomplished with limited fourth-line duties and no power-play time?
“I am happy with his attitude,” Keefe said. “I am happy with the game he played in Detroit. That is what made us want to keep him in the lineup again…. However the minutes shake out, for a young guy like him, it is just about soaking up the whole experience and getting a taste of the NHL again.”
• Count Sabres head coach Don Granato among those who believe Matthews deserves votes for the Selke Trophy this season.
“Even when he entered the league, he did have an appreciation for that side,” noted Granato, who coached the Leafs star with the U.S. National Team Development Program. “I had no problem using him at the U18 World Championship against [Patrik] Laine, [Sebastian] Aho, [Jesse] Puljujarvi and on and on, guys at the tournament who were prolific.
“He wants to win. And part of winning is just shutting a guy down, and he’s always had that. Winning a face-off has always been important to him. He should be talked about in that light.”