On Monday morning, the Maple Leafs Leafs announced that Rasmus Sandin had been loaned to the Marlies. The fresh-faced rookie has played six games with the big club before his demotion, averaging 12:13 in ice-time. That’s about what you’d expect from a kid playing sheltered minutes on the third pairing, especially under a coach known for stapling defensemen he doesn’t trust to the bench.
Before we read far too much into this, the Leafs recalled Kevin Gravel in a corresponding move. It has been well-documented that the Leafs will need to do some camp gymnastics this year to juggle the returns of two lineup regulars. Sandin costs $894,167 on the cap, while Gravel costs $700k — take that for what you will. Not that I think this will end up mattering, but Sandin’s contract can still slide until he plays a total of 10 games.
The Maple Leafs have recalled defenceman Kevin Gravel from the @TorontoMarlies (AHL).
Defenceman Rasmus Sandin has been loaned to the Marlies.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 14, 2019
I’d be shocked if Sandin didn’t play more than 10 games this season. He probably should end up logging four or five times that, even
If the move is play-driven, that would mean he hasn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff yet and the organization believes it is better for him to play 30 mins a night in the AHL rather than 12 in the NHL. This is the correct line of thinking — he’s 19, not 27.
In the AHL, Sandin will play in all situations without sheltering, likely be paired with Timothy Liljegren and have the benefit of working more closely with the Leafs development staff. Sandin wasn’t playing much on special teams while up with the Leafs, which is a part of his game that will be important as he takes the next step to the NHL. Developing that at the AHL level will allow him to gain confidence and improve his decision making, which is more than half the battle at the NHL level.
Here’s the thing with young players: most of them are inconsistent. They’re going to have lapses in judgement, more so than a seasoned vet, meaning it will be harder to for coaches to trust them. Playing them more and letting them continue to develop poor habits at the NHL level only harms their development — see Luke Schenn.
With Sandin, the Leafs have a luxury that other organizations like New Jersey (Ty Smith) do not. Sandin is eligible to play in the AHL because he was loaned from Sweden in his draft year, and therefore, isn’t covered by the CHL agreement. The Leafs don’t have to decide to keep him or send him back to the OHL. They can play start him in the NHL, which they did, and send him back to the AHL for however long they choose, while also holding the right to recall him when they need him.
In his first NHL stint, I noticed a few things about Sandin that are positive, and some things he needed to work on.
Namely, his numbers show a ton of positive. In sheltered minutes, Sandin was rocking a 58% shot share, meaning almost 60% of the shot attempts that occur while he’s on the ice, are for the Leafs. Considering that the Leafs are used to having shot share sinkholes on the third pair, that is a sharp improvement. Sandin also earned a positive expected goals percentage — another positive sign. According to Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score metrics, Sandin has averaged 0.235 over his 6 games – a slightly positive impact. However, he ranges from 1.98 (Ottawa) to -0.64 (St. Louis), a 2.5 point difference, showing the inconsistency.
From the stands and on TV, Sandin makes some really heads-up plays, he skates very well, and moves the puck with ease. His gap control is something that other Leafs defensemen could really learn from — particularly the second pairing. He kills plays before they develop, which is why his possession numbers are as high as they are. That’s something coaches love; the ability to kill plays. All of these are very important skills, especially the puck movement and gap control, as Sandin continues to develop into a top-four player.
The more he gains confidence in these skills, the impactful he’ll be when the Leafs do recall him.
Now for the not so great stuff.
I don’t know what it is, but there are various points where Sandin is skating all by himself, without the puck, and just falls down. It’s what hockey people joke is a “sniper.” I can’t say I’ve seen that all that often, at least on a habitual basis. In fact, I don’t know if its a balance issue, a focus issue or what — but I’m sure that’s something he’ll work on with Barb Underhill.
The more concerning issue is that Sandin has a tendency to struggle with the simplest of plays. He can make the really nice ones, that’s for sure, but on more than a few occasions, has struggled to make a simple pass, accept a clean pass or take a more complicated route. This is likely due to confidence. When you know your coach doesn’t trust you, you think a lot more, and that’s when mistakes happen.
In the AHL, Sandin will get more comfortable making more plays and he’ll learn to play without thinking — autopilot if you will.
The second one — and this is a biggie for Mike Babcock — Sandin isn’t quite there with his net-front presence. There’s no better example than the De La Rose goal vs. Detroit. Sandin is battling in front, lets De La Rose get inside position and it results in a goal against.
That type of play comes with experience. It’s decidedly rare to find a 19-year-old defenseman who consistently gets inside position and boxes out opponents at the net front. That’s one of those skills you gain from playing a ton of minutes, which he will undoubtedly do in the AHL. The more you play against men who are 200+ lbs and “hockey strong” in front of the net, the more you will develop techniques to be able to deal with them.
There’s no one way to gain inside position. It’s different based on how big you are, what your strengths are and who are you battling. While it takes time to develop, it is vitally important because gaining inside position is the difference between killing a play and a goal against.
The first six games of Sandin’s career were just a glimpse into what he can become for the Leafs. However, they also shed light on what skills and techniques he needs to master before he can be the trusted top-four guy for the Leafs. More time for a 19-year-old defenseman in the AHL is a good thing, especially with a development staff who will pour over video, work with him on those skills and prepare him for a full-time job with the Leafs.
They’re going to need him to play a big role in the not too distant future if the team wants to succeed.
Sandin earned his spot out of camp, got some playing time, and figured out what he needs to work on to be the impact player the Leafs need him to be. With the Marlies, he will have every opportunity to play in all situations under Keefe, including against the toughest competition. Don’t be surprised if he gets the Travis Dermott recall treatment after the All-Star break.
Under Dubas, it is clear the Leafs are a process-driven organization. This is all part of the process.