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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Leafs burn a year of Sandin’s Entry-Level Contract?

Rasmus Sandin has been one of the most impressive young Leafs this preseason. The 19-year-old defenceman has done everything to surprise and excite fans and front office personnel. But should the Leafs really burn a year of his Entry-Level Contract, just to have a young blueliner start his NHL career?

Since drafting him just over a year ago, the defenceman archetype that he fits best is a calm defender that will be an extremely agile powerplay quarterback. He has shown exactly that in the preseason through the couple of exhibition games.

It’s a small sample size of course, but he has been able to keep up with some NHL regulars and has demonstrated some ability to read plays and help the Leafs on both ends of the ice.

Just a small play in the neutral zone that leads to a goal. It’s simple, but it’s what players do to get noticed by coaches and make it into the top league.

All signs are pointing to Sandin being in the starting lineup to start the season. With Travis Dermott out 12-14 games, there is an opening spot on the bottom pairing that Sandin could take advantage of and make his NHL debut.

But if Sandin stays up for longer than nine games, the first year of his ELC will officially start no matter where he is in the Leafs organization.

In this “asset management” world, the decision to give up a year where a player could be productive and cost basically nothing is enticing. But where would Sandin play on this team once Dermott gets back?

The top-four of Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin, and Tyson Barrie is already cemented, leaving both Dermott and Sandin — with countless others like Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur, and Jordan Schmaltz — to have control over the bottom two spots.

But if they’re going to take the route of having to negotiate Sandin’s next contract one year sooner, is it worth it to have him just contribute 15 minutes a night and no real special teams ice-time for the upcoming season?

It’s natural that a rookie has to earn their ice-time gradually in the NHL, but with the Leafs suffering under a massive cap-crunch and needing every single cap dollar they could get, extending Sandin’s entry-level deal to its maximum and taking advantage of a potential top-four defenceman from 2020 to 2023 could be the best course of action.

Providing a reliable style of play, while also getting to be on the point for the second powerplay unit, that would provide an immense value to the Leafs if he was still making essentially nothing for three years. Considering their window of assumed contention, it would be a massive deal to have those full years with him on the blue line.

But again, there’s a window of contention and that includes this upcoming season.

The value that Sandin could bring to a Leafs team that wants to eventually get beyond the first round is — based on the minimal sample of the preseason — very positive. He’s shown that he’s a capable defenceman and if he’s ready now, why not play him?

It becomes a balancing act whether or not this franchise has a preference in the window beyond this year and will try to manage their assets accordingly, or just simply want their best players playing right now.

There is a way to manage both sides of the argument though.

If Sandin plays under 41 games in the regular season, his eligibility to become an Unrestricted Free Agent does not change. If he is going to play the entire season, he would be able to reach the open market at the age of 26, but keeping him under that half season extends it by a year.

It’s still enough games to make sense for playing the best players and will also keep the whole contract situation under wraps.

This scenario would burn a year of his ELC, but there is enough history — especially with the numbers reportedly offered to Marner last summer — that having a player sign long-term when they’re younger and less experienced is better for the team.

Hypothetically speaking, the Leafs could have their cake and eat it too in terms of having Sandin on the blueline.

No matter what happens with the 19-year-old Swedish defenceman this upcoming season, the future of the Leafs’ back end looks a little bit brighter than it did just a year prior. Sandin is a talent and has the ability to become a top-pair player on the team that Toronto hopes to be for a very long time.