The Toronto Maple Leafs did not dress their tough guys for a game against a physical New York Islanders team. Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford were not needed because there was a new enforcer in town. Instead, the tough guy role was filled by Rasmus Sandin, who has never fought in the NHL (or AHL), weighs 182 pounds (soaking wet) and stands 5-foot-11 (on his tippy toes).
The 22-year-old was the first to respond to a knee-on-knee hit on his teammate Auston Matthews. In doing so, Sandin took a giant step up in the eyes of the fan base and proved the blue and white are as tight as they claim.
Someone has to respond to an opposition player who sticks his knee out to clip a superstar. That happened when the Islanders’ Oliver Wahlstrom put his knee out on Matthews only minutes after Morgan Rielly left the game with a knee injury. The Wahlstrom hit occurred about 15 feet in front of Sandin, who didn’t hesitate for a moment. Despite giving up more than 20 pounds and a couple of inches, the Swede rushed in. He took a few punches and didn’t manage many in return. But, while he didn’t win the scrap, he did show a new side to his game.
Matthews is Being Targetted
Matthews said something to Sandin on the way to the penalty box. “It meant a lot, Sandy jumping in there,” said Matthews in the post-game scrums. “On my end, it is much appreciated. I don’t know how much I want to see Sandy dropping his gloves like that, but it obviously means a lot coming from a guy like that.”
It’s not the first time the Maple Leafs have responded when the opposition goes after the superstar player. Mark Giordano took on anyone in orange after an incident with the Philadelphia Flyers. The veteran led by example, and Giordano likes what he sees with Sandin, “you could see him playing with confidence tonight, really moving the puck well, so it’s obviously a great sign.”
Maple Leafs Cannot Afford Another Injury
With blood on his face, Sandin smiled at Wahlstrom from the penalty box. It was a big moment for the young man who missed a lot of training camp while waiting for his contract to be worked out. That said, the Maple Leafs are thin on the blue line already. The short fight ended when Wahlstrom fell backwards and took Sandin with him. Sandin’s head came very close to the ice, which could’ve been a severe injury. That is the fine line when guys who are not accustomed to fighting decide to stick up for teammates, it can be dangerous. The two were spotted chatting after the game, it seems cooler heads prevailed.
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Sandin is one of the players that has a big opportunity with a depleted Maple Leafs’ blue line. Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie and now possibly Morgan Rielly are out, giving several players a chance to prove they can handle more minutes. However, the 22-year-old defenseman has struggled at times in the early going this season. A spectacular giveaway to Sidney Crosby a few weeks game ago lead to a breakaway goal, and bad decisions have led to a red-faced Sheldon Keefe on the bench. But this time, the coach was happy with what he saw from his young defensemen, “It says he is engaged in the game sticking up for one of his teammates. I think it is a really good job by him.”
Sandin did what needed to be done, and kudos to him. But it should not have been the undersized defenseman in the situation as the one to respond. Toronto still needs to find a player that can play fourth-line minutes and be effective on the enforcement side of the game. Clearly, no one fits that bill in the current system.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.