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Sandin aiming to fill Maple Leafs' injury void with Muzzin, Rielly out

Rookie looked upon to pick up slack for sidelined veteran defensemen

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have adopted a postgame ritual this season in which the anointed player of the game is handed a basketball used by the NBA champion Toronto Raptors during the 2020 Final.

Surely it would have gone to Auston Matthews after the Maple Leafs' 7-4 victory against the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday, right? The center had a hat trick, the first time he had more than two goals in a game since scoring four in his NHL debut at the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12, 2016.

Except it didn't.

The decision was made to give the ball to rookie defenseman Rasmus Sandin, who had two assists after being called up from Toronto of the American Hockey League on Monday.

"I completely forgot about [the ball ritual] so it was a lot of fun," Sandin said. 

Sandin was a deserving recipient to be sure, albeit not as obvious a candidate as Matthews. Still, there was a method to the madness of giving it to the 19-year-old, selected by the Maple Leafs with the No. 29 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Toronto's leadership group understands Sandin is part of an undermanned defense is missing key cogs in Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly to injuries. As such, any way to provide confidence to this relatively inexperienced core moving forward is paramount, even if it involves a basketball.

Muzzin, who has been out of the Maple Leafs lineup since breaking his foot blocking a shot against the Devils on Dec. 27, resumed skating Wednesday.

Rielly's situation is far more dire.

Toronto's best puck-moving defenseman broke his left foot during an 8-4 loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday. He had surgery on Monday and will be re-evaluated in eight weeks.

With Rielly and Muzzin out, the onus now falls on defensemen Sandin, Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Cody Ceci, Martin Marincin and Timothy Liljegren to somehow pick up the slack.

"Obviously we have a lot of key guys out, guys that played big minutes for us, leaders on this team," Matthews said Tuesday. "It's an opportunity for guys to step up and play bigger roles, bigger minutes and try to succeed out there. I think it's the kind of challenge you look forward to."

Sandin, who has taken Rielly's spot on the second power play unit, said he welcomes the chance.

"[Rielly] is a big part of this team and he's out," Sandin said. "We can't really focus on that too much. We just have to play together and play good as a group. Hockey's a team sport so if we play good, the results will be good."

There will be some growing pains along the way.

Barrie (531 NHL games played) and Ceci (487) bring some much-needed experience but it falls off from there. Marincin (216) has a limited amount, and Dermott (135), Holl (58), Sandin (seven) and Liljegren (none) are learning on the job.

Liljegren was a healthy scratch against the Devils. Those other six who did play left Keefe impressed.

"I liked our defense as a whole," Keefe said. "We got caught a couple of times today pushing the envelope [but] we'll learn from it."

Keefe has made it clear injuries will not be used as an excuse.

"The elite teams in the League don't get fazed by these types of situations and we want to be an elite team," Keefe said. "We believe we are an elite team and have the ability to take big steps as a group."

Sandin, Dermott, Liljegren, Holl and Marincin each played for Keefe with Toronto of the AHL, and each is well-schooled in how he wants his teams to play.

"Both Sheldon and all the players are comfortable with each other," Sandin said. "Me and Timmy, who just came up, we pretty much know everyone here, especially the D-corps. I feel we're very comfortable here with all the "D' and Sheldon."

The schedule is favorable for the banged-up Maple Leafs (25-16-6) to get much-needed rest and time to heal.

Toronto hosts the Calgary Flames on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TSN4, SNW, NHL.TV) and the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday before their League mandated five-day break before their break for the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game. They'll return to action at the Nashville Predators on Jan. 27.

As for making a potential move before the 2020 NHL trade deadline of Feb. 24, TSN reported Tuesday a number of teams have contacted the Maple Leafs about possible deals involving defensemen. 

Adding a defenseman via trade is a viable option under the NHL salary cap because forward Ilya Mikheyev (wrist) is expected to miss the rest of the season on long-term injured reserve. Question is, can they get a team trading a $3 million player to eat half that salary-cap charge?

For now, they'll go with what they know. That includes Sandin, who was named top defenseman at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship after having 10 points (three goals, seven assists) for Sweden.

"He made an immediate impact on us [against New Jersey]," Matthews said. "I'm looking forward to watching him in the next game because it's a blast."

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