The Leafs just easily beat the Canucks 7-3 with their Thursday night lineup, actually their Thursday night lineup minus Travis Dermott, who was injured in the first. They are sitting at 8-2-1 through 11 games, and essentially the top team in the NHL, so why are we talking about messing around with their roster? The answer can most quickly be explained by the fact that we’re never satisfied Leafs fans and we’re always wanting more, but there is another piece, and that’s the fact that we have a shiny new(-ish) toy that we haven’t taken out of the box this season and we want to know how it plays.
Much has been made of Rasmus Sandin’s place on the depth chart and the fact that one of the Leafs’ top prospects hasn’t played a game in 11 months. In a somewhat curious decision, Sandin wasn’t among the handful of Leafs prospects that were loaned overseas as the organization sought to find ice time for their youngest players when the NHL season was still up in the air. That was probably due to the fact that the Leafs viewed him as a more likely candidate to factor into their opening night roster plans but as it stands, he is currently behind Mikko Lehtonen in the rotation as the team’s eighth defenceman. With the Marlies’ season still in question, there remains no clear path to playing time for Toronto’s first round pick from the 2018 draft.
Rasmus Sandin gave us a few flashes of brilliance last season mixed with some fairly adequate service when the Leafs defensive depth was strained. He played 28 games, officially making it his rookie year, and the 20 year old put up 8 points over that time, and was averaging over 14 minutes a night, which was certainly sheltered by every day defenseman standards, but not bad for a rookie getting a taste of the league.
His game logs from last season:
|Game #||Home/Away?||Result||GF||GA||CF||CA||CF%||CF Rel||xGF||xGA||xGF%||xGF Rel||ES TOI||Partner|
|7||Sent to AHL|
His game by game breakdown don’t particularly demonstrate an increasing confidence in Sandin, but more a tendency to find the best fit for him at the given time when they needed him in the lineup. At the end of the year he found himself platooning with Calle Rosen and Timothy Liljegren rather than establishing that he was ready for a full time NHL job. It should also be noted that his best games came when paired with Cody Ceci, who could provide a stay at home safety net to cover for his inexperience, and for the most part his utilization would be in the sheltered third pairing situation. This probably demonstrates that he’s best suited for working with Zach Bogosian when he finds his way into the lineup, which is good because that should have been the conclusion of who his partner would have been even if he wasn’t the ideal candidate.
Looking at Sandin’s Total Player Score valuations (which I’ve explained in detail here) we can see that his performance was below all the Leafs other defenders last season, and was remarkably close to that of Martin Marincin. His on ice play drove the success he had, like most defensemen, but without an established offensive game his individual outputs remained fairly low, and put him in the 30th percentile for performance of NHL skaters who played 20 games last season.
Sandin was more physical than I would have expected, collecting 30 hits over his 28 games, and the fact that some of his points were even strength primary points shows he is connected to the play, not just starting things out of his own end.
Probably the lesson to take away from what we’ve seen from Sandin to date is that there isn’t much of a case for considering him a full time NHLer yet, and considering he doesn’t turn 21 until March, that is perfectly fine. The catch this year is that Sandin is still a top prospect, and the Leafs don’t have a place for him to play. Yet.
Sitting on the taxi squad right now is infinitely more appealing than the alternative of being in limbo like the rest of the AHL roster. With no idea when the season will start, if it will start, and where they will play, I’m more inclined to feel sympathy for someone like Timothy Liljegren who should equally be in consideration for a future role with the Leafs. Sandin is at least getting his practices in, and while it’s been a long time since he’s been in a game, that’s probably better than nothing at this point. Still, he’s a prized prospect within the organization, and finding a game for him at some point needs to be in the cards.
There’s the additional challenge of having Mikko Lehtonen ahead of him in the pecking order, not to mention Travis Dermott, who if it wasn’t for Lehtonen and Sandin, wouldn’t be having his status as the 3rd pairing left side defenseman questioned. The Leafs want to see what they have in Lehtonen, perhaps even more than Sandin because of the potential short term benefit of Mikko over Rasmus, and that has made it challenging so that even with a banged up Travis Dermott, there’s no guarantee that Sandin comes in for Dermott if Travis is hurt.
It also seems as if the door is closing on the notion of playing 11F/7D, which created a bit of a pathway for Sandin getting icetime. Travis Boyd and Jason Spezza have established themselves as two players who should be locked into the fourth line role, and with Nic Petan, Joey Anderson, and others showing promise in the fourth line role as well, not to mention consideration needing to be given for the return of Nick Robertson, it doesn’t seem that there will be extra opportunities for defensemen anytime soon, when the forwards are also dealing with the pleasant issue of too much qualified depth.
That really is something that needs to be highlighted as well in here, this is a pleasant problem for the Leafs. They are having to find ways of taking performing players out of the lineup to make room for other qualified players to stay game ready. This is going on while two name brand forwards are hurt. When the reality of a 56 game schedule in a condensed timeline during a pandemic also hits the Leafs blueline, we won’t be fussing so much about getting Sandin in, but at the same time, when the Leafs really need him do they want it to be his first regular season game in over a year that he’s playing?
In hindsight, maybe loaning Sandin (and Liljegren) overseas was the right call for this year, but there were too many unknowns at the time the Leafs would have needed to commit to that. They would have needed to make that decision in all likelihood before the Brodie and Bogosian acquisitions. They would have made that decision before Ontario put up its barriers to having an AHL season, and no one knew what the taxi squad situation would look like. Committing to put near NHL ready defensemen overseas would have seemed like a panic move and one that could have handcuffed the Leafs success, especially when we’re coming off a season where defensive injuries 100% warranted keeping these guys around.
Whether it’s merit driven or out of necessity for his development, the Leafs are in a situation where they should get Sandin into a game in the very near future. Arguably the best fit might be the next game, as Dermott could use an extra game to heal up, and after getting by with 5 defensemen on the previous night, carrying a prospect as a passenger seems pretty doable. The catch as always is Mikko Lehtonen. He’s recently put up his first NHL point, and gave a bit more of a glimpse into what he can do as well at the NHL level, and might see it as his opportunity to get back in. Unfortunately for Lehtonen the Leafs will need to eventually choose their future over the present, and Sandin is a big part of the Leafs future blue line and it’s time to do right by him.
As I get ready to schedule the post, we’ve reached a bit more insight into the Leafs plans for Saturday night, and it’s…
Travis Dermott absent from Leafs practice
Mikko Lehtonen takes his spot alongside Zach Bogosian
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 5, 2021
So it might take some injuries before we see Sandin, unfortunately. Hopefully he stays patient and he learns something from his practice defensive partner, *checks notes*, Adam Brooks. Sigh.