Rasmus Sandin has been on an upward trajectory since the Maple Leafs selected him with the 29th overall pick in the 2018 draft. He immediately stepped into professional hockey with the Marlies and put up one of the best seasons the AHL has ever seen from an 18 year old, quickly growing into a go to player in all situations for then Marlies coach, Sheldon Keefe. He began this season by (somewhat surprisingly) beating out Toronto’s other depth options for a job on Mike Babcock’s blue line before being sent down to the Marlies, and just led Sweden to a bronze medal at the World Junior Championship where he was named the best defenseman in the tournament. There is little question that he is the top prospect in the Leafs organization but there are still plenty of questions surrounding his status with the big club in the immediate future.
Maple Leafs fans and management alike caught a fleeting glimpse of what the 19 year old defenseman was capable of after a strong training camp and an injury to Travis Dermott helped Sandin earn a spot on the opening night roster. He performed admirably and came as advertised showing smart, decisive puck moving ability and poise beyond his years. Through 6 games Sandin registered 2 assists with the Leafs controlling 57.46% of the shot attempts and 52.45% of the expected goals when he was on the ice at 5v5. Those numbers still have him at first and second respectively in CF% and xGF% among Leafs defensemen, albeit in a much smaller sample size than his teammates. Keeping up in the NHL wasn’t a problem but Leafs management felt that playing 12-14 minutes a night wasn’t the best thing for his development and with Dermott set to return in the near future, the decision was made to send Sandin back to the AHL to continue his development playing a much larger role for the Marlies.
When the Leafs lost Jake Muzzin to a broken bone in his foot at the end of December and were left to rely on Martin Marincin, many expected that Sandin’s return from a stellar performance at the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic would be immediately followed by his recall to the NHL. But regardless of how fans may feel about Sandin’s ability or having Martin Marincin playing regular minutes on the Leafs blueline, Kyle Dubas and his management team have a litany of factors to consider when it comes to their handling of the organization’s prized prospect.
Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe have shown that they are more than willing to recall players from the Marlies and see what they’ve got at the NHL level as they continue to work towards finding their best lineup for the stretch drive of the NHL season. Pierre Engvall has taken his opportunity and run with it, Adam Brooks looks like a viable option as a depth forward right now, and Mason Marchment is being given a chance to prove he can skate at the NHL level too. But Sandin – from an asset management point of view – is unique to all of these players in that his entry level contract hasn’t kicked in yet. Since he doesn’t turn 20 years old until March, his contract is set to slide for another year unless he plays 10 games in the NHL this season. If his contract slides this year, it would ensure Sandin is on the books at a cap hit of just $894k for the next three seasons. With 6 games already under his belt, the Leafs are left to find the balance between what’s best for the player and what’s best for the team both now and in the future.
Following Muzzin’s injury, Martin Marincin stepped into his spot beside Justin Holl on what had been an effective shutdown pairing to that point but his since been demoted to the third pair while the team gets a look at what Travis Dermott can do in heavier minutes. While he may not be the most aesthetically pleasing player, Marincin ranks first among Leafs defensemen with a 54.97 CF% and second with a 56.82 xGF% in the 6 games since Muzzin’s injury. The team has outscored the opposition 4-2 at 5v5 with Marincin on the ice during that stretch and he’s been a fixture on the penalty kill as well. Whether or not Sandin is more talented than Marincin isn’t really up for debate but it would be difficult to expect the young defenseman to produce much better results than that in a bottom pairing role, even with his superior offensive ability. Never mind that the organization has already decided once this season that they’d prefer to have Sandin playing first pairing minutes with the Marlies as opposed to third pairing minutes with the Leafs.
With Muzzin currently listed as week-to-week, the Leafs are set to play 4 games before going into their bye week and the All-Star break, giving them 8 days between games. Their first game back is on January 27th, almost a full month since Muzzin played his last game. Barring any setbacks, Muzzin should be back in the Leafs lineup within the next 6-8 games. Unless the team makes some kind of move there isn’t really a place for Sandin on this blue line when everyone is healthy, third pairing or otherwise.
Sandin needs to play just 4 more NHL games this season to start the clock on his entry level contract and burn the first season. Playing 34 more games would also count this year as his first towards UFA eligibility. While I think it’s pretty obvious that the team has no intention of doing that, there are pros and cons to burning the first year of the ELC while still keeping him under the 40 game threshold for burning a season on his unrestricted free agency clock. The obvious downside is that the Leafs would have Sandin at that $894k cap hit for just two full seasons instead of three. He has the potential to be a really good top four or perhaps even top pairing defenseman for this team by that third season and would provide outstanding value at that cap hit. On the flip side, burning the first season now would allow Dubas to sign Sandin to his second contract with just two seasons on his resumé rather than three. This is an extreme example but think about how different Mitch Marner’s contract might look had it been negotiated after he put up 68 points instead of after a season where he broke out for 94 points. The chances of Sandin blowing up in a similar fashion are probably pretty slim but Dubas still has to weigh the risks and potential rewards of what burning a year of Sandin’s contract now will mean in the future.
The thought of adding another young, dynamic offensive talent like Sandin to Sheldon Keefe’s already potent Maple Leafs team is surely tantalizing and it would be tough to make an argument that he hasn’t earned it. But in a salary cap world, Dubas and company know they have to manage their assets wisely. Sandin looks like he’s going to be a core piece of this team for a long time and having him play a handful of games on the third pair while Marincin is doing just fine there probably isn’t worth burning a year of his entry level deal with the Leafs likely to be tight against the upper limit of the salary cap in the coming years. Of course, if it turns out Muzzin is going to be out longer than originally anticipated or the Leafs lose even one more defenseman to injury then all bets are off but right now the best thing for the Leafs and Sandin is to have him starring in the AHL as he continues his upward trajectory towards becoming an integral part of the Maple Leafs defensive unit for years to come.
Statistics via NaturalStatTrick.com
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