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‘Good for him’: Rasmus Sandin needed a trade to get his break

Individual success in the National Hockey League can be boiled down to two basic stages: 1. Opportunity and 2. Doing Something with It.

In the fascinating case of Rasmus Sandin — GM Kyle Dubas’s original NHL draft pick — the defenceman never fully got to Stage 1 during his four-and-a-half years in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system. At the very least, the opportunity Sandin has been handed through two games with the Washington Capitals has exceeded that given to him through 140 games as a Leaf.

With stud John Carlson sidelined indefinitely with a face injury and the retooling franchise shedding a couple of its other top blueliners at the trade deadline, Sandin has swiftly stepped in and stepped up.

After his work visa got sorted, the affable Swede took the reins of Washington’s frightening top power-play unit and set a franchise record by posting three assists in his debut Saturday.

Sandin followed up Monday with his first goal in his fresh sweater, a primary assist on Alexander Ovechkin’s patented power-play one-timer, and a career-high 25:06 in ice time. A fine way to celebrate his 23rd birthday (according to Swedish time).

Five points in two games has rejuvenated a skilled but smallish player who was on track to be in the press box (again) if Toronto reached the postseason at full health on the back end.

“It’s been different. I don’t know if I see myself as a No. 1 guy. We’ve got lots of good defencemen,” Sandin told reporters in Los Angeles Monday night.

“It’s a difference, for sure, but it’s obviously a lot of fun to get that opportunity. It’s up to me to keep that spot. So, just gotta keep rolling.”

While it would be foolish to rule a winner today on the trade that sent a 2023 first-round pick (Boston’s) and veteran offensive D-man Erik Gustafsson to Toronto for Sandin, Washington’s early returns are promising.

Let’s be clear. Only one of these teams thinks of itself as a Stanley Cup contender this spring, and Toronto’s management likes its chances better in 2023 without Sandin.

“It wasn’t something I was expecting. Sad to leave the teammates, but at the same time excited for the opportunity to come here. It’s a great organization.“ Sandin said.

“It’s not just about coming here and being given that role that you want. You have to earn it. I’m very prepared for it, and I’m very excited for it.”

Sandin skates for a modest $1.4-million cap hit and is the Capitals’ only NHL-level left-shot defenceman locked up through 2023-24, at which point he’ll become a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.

That’s fantastic value for a young puck-mover operating in your top four, particularly when his best shifts still lie ahead.

It’s too much to pay for a seventh defenceman on a cap-strapped club when the coach doesn’t yet trust him in a physical seven-game series, however.

In Washington, Sandin has started 72.7 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone and gets to tee up the greatest goal-scorer of all time in his wheelhouse circle.

“Looks like he’s been there before,” Sandin said, smiling. “It’s terrific to play with these guys and get a chance to do it.”

In Toronto, Sandin wasn’t going to a shutdown-pair fixture anytime soon, and he faced an uphill battle wrestling PP1 quarterback duties from Morgan Rielly, still signed for seven seasons.

Again, opportunity — not just money — was a factor in Sandin’s sticky contract negotiations with the Maple Leafs last summer.

Under pressure to win ASAP, Dubas shed a promising player to save cap space, recoup a first-round pick plus a secondary piece.

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan offered Dubas a choice of either a second (late-round) draft pick or pending UFA Erik Gustafsson.

“You don’t really have guys flush with that ability offensively on the power play,” Dubas explained. “Rather than leave ourselves hanging there, we could get Gustafsson in the deal, who was probably going to cost us more than the (other) pick we were going to get back anyway. With his form this year with Washington, we felt it would be a good move for us to make.

“We were excited to get him in here. We had talked about him in the summers. Sheldon and the coaching staff have talked about him throughout. That just made sense to tie off the depth part, in addition to getting the draft capital in that deal.”

It’s believed that Dubas was open to the idea of flipping the first-rounder for another immediate roster boost last week.

After Friday’s deadline passed quietly, however, Dubas said either he’ll use the Bruins’ first-round pick to add “a higher-end prospect to our system” at the Nashville draft — “or survey what the market is going to be as we get into June in terms of trade.”

Ultimately, how rental Gustafsson helps come playoffs and how Dubas uses that first-rounder will determine if the Sandin trade can still turn into a win for the Maple Leafs.

But from Washington’s point of view, MacLellan is already looking pretty shrewd.

“We like his age. We like his game,” MacLellan said. “He’s only going to get better going forward. We see, hopefully, a guy that we can build around moving forward, a young top-four defenceman that will play here a long time hopefully.”

Capitals coach Peter Laviolette is already encouraged by Sandin’s ability to break out pucks, gain space, make a crisp first pass and add an element of speed from the back.

Sandin notes the systems in Toronto and D.C. are similar and has been embraced by national treasure Nicklas Backstrom.

“I haven’t been here very long, but it just seems like a super-tight group. I’m just excited to be a part of it. Four, five days I’ve been here, and everyone has welcomed me in very well,” Sandin said. “It’s a lot of fun to be here.”

Sandin’s legitimate opportunity has arrived.

So far, he’s doing something with it.

“Good for him,” said close friend and Leafs winger William Nylander. “I’m happy for him.”


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