The Toronto Maple Leafs have no other choice than to be thrilled with the early returns of their most recent first-round pick.
When speaking to the media following the first game of what may be a potentially short AHL career, one reporter asked Rasmus Sandin whether it was a sense of relief he felt upon making his long-awaited return to game action.
“Yeah, for sure,” replied Sandin, unable to hide a slight smile.
“All those weeks I’ve always wanted to get back to a game. So it feels good.”
The weeks Sandin refers to are the four he spent mired in injury limbo to begin the season, nursing a sprained thumb he suffered during the Marlies’ first game of the preseason.
Forget, for a moment, the jitters of joining a new team in a foreign city. Before Friday, circumstance had withheld from Sandin the baseline opportunity to suit up alongside his new teammates as the games began to matter, instead relegating him to side sessions with the development staff and tedious rehab.
It’s a shame, really. Longing to contribute aside, Sandin is a prime example of a player whose true value is best articulated amidst game situations. And, for the better part of a month, injury had barred him from doing just that.
Thankfully, that period is now over with.
No lone skill stands out amongst Sandin’s repertoire. His stride is not particularly quick, his shot not particularly lethal, his body not particularly imposing. Rather, what makes him special, and therefore worthy of his first-round selection, is his innate attention to detail.
It’s in the little things where Sandin thrives the most, facets of the game largely missed upon casual viewing and yet so undeniably intricate to the overall success of his team.
And as he took to the ice on Friday as the AHL’s youngest player, Sandin demonstrated just how valuable he could be.
Areas of Expertise
Largely due to a lack of “flash”, Sandin’s otherwise immense impact on events around him can at times go somewhat unnoticed. To remedy this, in the coming days, I’ll be breaking down Sandin’s aptitude with those aforementioned little things as a way to shine a well-deserved light on his understated, yet paramount value.
Using his impressive debut performance as a testing ground, this will be done by dissecting Sandin in the context of three distinct and important areas of play; transition, the defensive zone, and the offensive zone.
Today, we focus on transition.
Lack of capable puck movement from the back end has been an unshakeable anchor on the Marlies’ first 10 games of the season, weighing down their potential more so than perhaps any of their other shortcomings, goaltending aside.
For a roster so talented, this is a problem.
These Marlies may not echo their 2017-18 speed demon counterparts – honestly, few teams ever can – but their forward corps, on the whole, is still remarkably fast. Weaponizing that speed from the blueline is what has proven itself to be a constant challenge, and the defence’s inability to transition the play out of their own end is largely responsible for the firm lid which has been placed on the group’s otherwise sky grasping ceiling.
Simply put, third pairing LHD options in Andrew Nielsen and Sam Jardine have not been cutting it. To take a meaningful step forward, a change must be made.
Let’s tackle this sequence in pieces, as it’s a relatively long one.
Receiving the puck at the top of the defensive zone, Vincent LoVerde finds himself quickly tasked with transitioning the play up the ice and out of the Marlies end. With a dearth of passing lanes before him, LoVerde opts to go cross-ice to Sandin, who then immediately faces pressure from the Crunch’s Boris Katchouk.
It’s here where Sandin begins to fill a Marlies’ area of need.
So often, in similar instances of transition, do Marlies defenders opt to ring the puck up the boards in panic, effectively forfeiting possession and ultimately wiping out any chance of an offensive zone attack. It’s the quote-on-quote “safe play”. More or less seen as a crutch, it’s a move that allows the player in question to feign intent at a stretch pass while eluding the need to venture anywhere outside their comfort zone.
Whether he keeps the puck or not, a turnover stands to be the most likely outcome of either course of action. It’s just, this way, the blame is easier to evade.
Rather than panic, Sandin charts a different course.
Holding onto the puck, he gestures up ice to fake a dump out, therein drawing Katchouk over to him and away from LoVerde, daring him to engage. Once Katchouk inevitably commits, Sandin proceeds to calmly evade the forecheck via perfectly timing Katchouk’s stick movements to leave a slight opening, which he then uses to slide the puck back over to LoVerde.
This, in turn, presents LoVerde with enough time and space to successfully initiate transition in one of two ways; either by carrying the puck out himself or looking for a streaking forward.
LoVerde instead opts to circle back – fine, I guess – which draws in another Crunch attacker as a result.
In lieu of bringing the puck back behind the Marlies’ net to reboot the team’s set breakout, Sandin makes the smart choice to shift back over to the left side as a means of spacing out the zone, stranding the attacker in a grey area of which side he should commit to, and, once again, opening a passing lane.
Let’s do a brief recap, shall we?
In one fluid sequence, Sandin exudes the requisite patience to wait for the play’s most effective outcome, the positional awareness to create suitable passing lanes for his partner, and the confidence to willfully take on an oncoming forechecker and parse through him with little, if any, trouble.
On the stick of any of the Marlies’ alternative third pair LHD options, this play dies. On Sandin’s, not only does it live, it evolves.
But of course, the majority of sequences won’t materialize to perfection.
Despite the wealth of open space before him, LoVerde forces his outlet pass into a tight window along the boards where Sam Gagner proceeds to bobble it, forfeiting possession back over to the Crunch. Only, this time, the circumstances are different.
The Crunch are at the tail end of a lengthy shift, exhausted, and as a means of switching on fresh attackers, attempt to dump the puck back into the Marlies’ zone, ultimately changing the hands of possession yet again.
As Dominik Masin (#27 in the clip) winds up, his shot actually catches Sandin (bottom right of the frame) drifting over a smidge too far onto the right side, and forces him to switch edges on a dime and intercept the dump-in on his backhand.
Which, as it turns out, may have been for the best.
Receiving the puck on his backhand allows Sandin to corral it without interrupting his lateral movement. It affords him a brief window, one Sandin first uses to survey the ice and draw an attacker towards him, which then clears some highly coveted space in an otherwise congested neutral zone.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, both Nielsen and Jardine simply do not do this. It’s what makes Sandin’s such a welcome presence to this blueline.
Substitute either of the former two – it doesn’t matter which – into this particular sequence and both almost certainly dump the puck in from centre immediately upon retrieval. Not only does this instantly kill momentum, but on the chance one of them demonstrates enough awareness to avoid an icing, their decision succeeds only in;
- Gifting the Crunch with a sorely needed change.
- Affording them ample time to regroup with fresh personnel.
- And allowing them to mount an offensive attack, likely catching the Marlies’ off-guard amidst a change of their own.
Instead, Sandin does this:
Under rapidly approaching pressure, he stays calm, hits a circling Gagner in stride who faces a clear path ahead of him, generating an offensive zone entry and, ultimately, a scoring chance.
It’s a simple sequence, one absent from the highlight reels or curated Twitter threads. But when contextualized in the grand scheme of the game, transitional plays like the one in question are undoubtedly important to any team’s bottom line. Simply put, they allow a system to function.
Sure, Sandin scored a goal. But a notch on the stat sheet underscores just how comfortable he looked in his first taste of professional action, perhaps even demonstrating just how far along his development might actually be.
Attention to detail is generally regarded as the most daunting hurdle littering a typical prospect’s path to the NHL. What others see as a roadblock, Sandin sees as a strength.
Thanks for reading!
All gifs & footage courtesy of AHLtv.com