Any time a 19-year-old cracks an NHL roster out of training camp, there’s a reason for excitement.
For the Maple Leafs Leafs organization, this excitement has been brewing for some time. Kyle Dubas seized the opportunity to move down in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and still get his guy, dropping four spots to take Rasmus Sandin at 29th overall. The Leafs then signed Sandin to an Entry-Level Contract in July of that year, and he proceeded to play with the Marlies the following season.
Since then, young Rasmus has been winning the hearts of head coaches everywhere he goes. Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said “there’s a poise and confidence well beyond his years”. Sandin earned a big role for himself at the World Juniors that year, too, before ultimately leaving the tournament with an injury. This year, he earned praise from Mike Babcock, who noted he couldn’t get Sandin to play poorly no matter what situation he put him in.
Should Sandin’s demotion put an end to the excitement? No.
Sandin’s chance at making the team full time ultimately succumbed to factors outside of his control. First, there was a lot of change on the Leafs blue line, to begin with. Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin, Ben Harpur, and Jordan Schmaltz were all acquired via trade in the past year. The Leafs put a lot of time into developing Justin Holl and Martin Marincin, then added Kevin Gravel and Teemu Kivihalme to their depth via free agency. That essentially meant the top four was set before camp, and there was a lot of competition for the last two starting jobs.
While Travis Dermott’s injury left one extra spot open, the cap situation made Justin Holl (and his $675k cap hit) invaluable. On top of that Mike Babcock lost his two favourite penalty killers this summer, making Marincin’s 12-foot long stick more useful than ever.
It seemed like the decision was made before Sandin even got into his first regular-season game, as the Leafs chose to shield Shore from waivers rather than create enough space to keep Sandin on a 21 man roster.
By replacing Shore with Luchuk, the Leafs could have gotten close enough to the cap to keep Sandin plus Holl as a scratch. Either the Leafs really don't want to lose Shore on waivers, or they've got other plans. pic.twitter.com/4BgWeg7BII
— Earl Schwartz (@EarlSchwartz27) October 1, 2019
Sandin still put his best foot forward, notching two points in six games and a 56.48% Corsi rating. If the Leafs felt he was too good to send down, they still could’ve run with a 20-man roster and sent Sandin down any time there was an injury on a paper transaction in order to recall two skaters.
It may have been a very close decision, but there was one last deciding factor that swung the decision in favour of a return to the Marlies: the Entry-Level Slide.
Long Term Implications of AHL Assignment
Playing Sandin in 10 NHL games would have burned off the first year of his ELC, setting it to expire concurrently with Kasperi Kapanen and Morgan Rielly in 2022. If Sandin does indeed slide, his cap hit will be lowered to $863,333 as a result of one more signing bonus being paid outside of the three-year window where AAV is calculated. His contract would then expire in 2023, where Alexander Kerfoot and Andreas Johnsson’s combined $6.9 million contracts expire as UFA. There will be more contracts signed in the coming years to muddy the waters, but whichever way you look at it, there’s the potential for great value in the final two years of that contract.
In 2021-22, the Leafs will either have to sign Frederik Andersen to a new contract or find a new starting goalie. Regardless of the means, though, it would be difficult to find a better value than Andersen’s current contract. That dictates the Leafs will have to create value elsewhere if they want to compete, but luckily for them, they may have already done it. Just under $16 million for Rielly, Kerfoot, Johnsson, Kapanen, and Sandin seems like a modest discount already, but the landscape changes every year.
There’s been a lot of talk about the rate of cap inflation, but we won’t have any more information until likely next summer. Let’s assume by 2021-22 the cap has risen to $86m, and the players in question have progressed reasonably along their career trajectory. That’s two top-six wingers, a top pair defenceman, a top-four defenceman, and a 3C for 18.6% of the cap.
With the four highest-paid forwards already accounted for, that would leave about $2.2 million per player for the remaining 13-14 players. Even if the Leafs spent $20m on a starting goalie and two right-handed defencemen, I doubt they’d have any trouble finding six depth forwards, three depth defenders, and a backup goalie for under a million each. As a matter of fact, they’re already doing that this year, spending only $714,444 per player for those 10 depth players.
The reason the slide really matters in 2022-23. Rielly and Kapanen’s contracts will come out of the equation then, and it’s safe to assume they’ll be asking for significant raises. By that point, there will be players we aren’t even considering challenging for a bigger role yet, but having two of your best (left-handed) defenceman without contracts is rarely a recipe for success in the middle of your contention window.
This slide could prove to be the difference between keeping Morgan Rielly, or having to put Sandin and his freshly signed contract on the top defence pair.
Short Term Implications
What we know right now is that Sandin’s demotion creates an opportunity for Kevin Gravel. His signing went relatively unnoticed in a big market like Toronto, but Gravel has already played over 100 NHL games between Los Angeles and Edmonton. He may not move the needle much as a depth defenceman, but if the Leafs want to preserve a year of Sandin’s contract Gravel will have to prove himself as the number one left-handed defence recall.
Having already cleared waivers, it will be no surprise to see Gravel sent down when Dermott is healthy. Still, if the Leafs have multiple injuries it will have to be someone making less than $800k on an emergency recall, and Gravel is one of four defencemen that fit the bill. Of the other three, Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz disappointed in camp, and Teemu Kivihalme has no NHL experience.
It would be equally unsurprising to see Gravel get the first call if things go smoothly until Dermott gets back.
The demotion also means that the Marlies will reunite a promising young Swedish D pair, Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. If you’re one to view this move from a development standpoint, this will be a prime opportunity for both to learn to play in all situations, including special teams. Sandin has an incredible hockey sense and focus on learning, so Sheldon Keefe should not have a difficult time teaching him to kill penalties. If he can manage that, Sandin will be a really tempting option to the Leafs when the playoffs start and there are no more cap limitations.
If Sandin can prove his special teams ability prior to the trade deadline, then there’s extra motivation to move Cody Ceci’s $4.5 million contract for help elsewhere, therein moving a healthy Dermott into the top four and an improved Sandin into the lineup. It’s too early to tell exactly what the Leafs need, but if Andersen already has 50 starts at the deadline, there should be some real urgency to find someone that can get him some rest down the stretch.
Ultimately, whether or not Sandin gets recalled is based on factors out of his control once again.
It’s yet to be determined who the final 21 bodies on this roster are, but no matter the combination, there will not be enough cap space to recall Sandin. The ELC slide will be enough to keep Sandin in the minors until the Leafs are fighting to keep their season alive, barring a long term injury.
It’s important to note that both regular season and playoff games count towards the 10 game threshold regarding Entry-Level Slides, so there may still be a hesitation to play Sandin in the playoffs. I think it’s significant that the Leafs sent Sandin down after six games rather than nine, as they could be keeping him in their back pocket until an elimination game, trying to ice their best team and preserve Sandin’s slide at the same time.
If it does, in fact, come down to a decision between sliding Sandin and winning a playoff series, we can rest assured it will be an easy one. The reason the Leafs are cautious about burning a year of Sandin’s contract is that they feel a slide will increase their chances of winning down the road. If the opportunity materializes, I’m confident there will no regard for future consequences if the cup is in the building.
This shot is the best shot until it’s not.