With a little under a month remaining until most teams kick off their respective training camps, we’ve officially reached that point of the offseason where fans will be grasping for the slightest thing that could be considered news. And within the past few days, Toronto Maple Leafs fans got something new to talk about. However, it wasn’t a big trade or rumblings around a free agent signing. Rather, it was a vague update about how contract negotiations between the team and restricted free agent (RFA) defenseman Rasmus Sandin have reportedly gone “nowhere”.
Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Much Made of Nothing in Sandin Talks
The Maple Leafs are no stranger to contract negotiations with their younger players, especially in recent years. Forward William Nylander held out of his negotiations in 2018-19 and didn’t make his season debut until December. Mitch Marner didn’t come to an agreement with the team until the start of the 2019-20 season. And with the Carolina Hurricanes showing the hockey world that offer sheets do still exist with their signing of Jesperi Kotkaniemi last season, everybody is naturally on high alert when it comes to the team’s negotiations with Sandin.
For the record, I’m not entirely convinced that Sandin’s contract negotiations are going to play out the way the ones for Nylander or Marner did. Unlike those two, he hasn’t really made a case for a payday, and especially not one far beyond what fellow defenseman Timothy Liljegren got (two years with an average annual value (AAV) of $1.4 million). But in the event that push comes to shove and a trade is the only way out of this, the Vancouver Canucks are a team that could have a fit for both Sandin and the Maple Leafs. And coming back the other way would be forward Conor Garland.
Garland is One of the NHL’s Most Underrated Producers
When you look at Garland’s point totals from his draft year, one has to wonder how he slipped to the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. In 2013-14, which was his first season as a draft-eligible prospect, he tallied 54 points through 51 games for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL)’s Moncton Wildcats. Typically, these results would be good enough to warrant a selection, but he went undrafted – likely because he was listed at 5-foot-9 at the time.
Nevertheless, the Massachusetts native wanted to make sure no team made the mistake of passing over him again, and he produced at a ridiculous rate in 2014-15. He finished with 129 points in 67 games, scoring at a similar pace to Marner, who finished with 126 points in 63 games and went on to be selected fourth overall by the Maple Leafs. This time, he caught the eyes of scouts, and the Arizona Coyotes selected him in the fifth round. He came back the following season and upped his production, finishing with 128 points in 62 games in his final year of junior. Granted, he was a year older than Marner when he posted those numbers, but they were still good enough to leave us asking the question of why he slipped so far in the draft.
Garland didn’t jump into the NHL right away, either. He spent two full seasons with the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League (AHL), and after putting up 25 points in his first 21 games in 2018-19, the Coyotes called him up and he never looked back. His “breakout season” per se, came in 2020-21 when he tallied 39 points in 49 games for the Coyotes, and that offseason, they packaged him along with defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in a trade to the Canucks for a haul that included Vancouver’s first-round pick in 2021.
Garland subsequently signed a five-year contract extension with the Canucks shortly after the trade, and in his first season with the team, he scored 19 goals and finished with 52 points in 77 games. His efforts somewhat flew under the radar amidst a stellar season from J.T. Miller, but he was tied for fourth in team scoring with Bo Horvat. Should the Canucks look to make a run for the playoffs in a weak Pacific Division, it’s possible they’d want to keep Garland. But they’re going to have to free some money up eventually in order to sign Horvat and maybe even Miller, so keeping him may not be an option in the end.
Sandin and Garland Would Solve a Need For Each Team
If you’re a Maple Leafs fan, then you would know that the need Garland addresses is obvious. The Maple Leafs have a need for a fresh face in their top six, specifically somebody to play alongside Nylander and John Tavares, and Garland would instantly fill that need. But it wouldn’t only make sense for the Maple Leafs. The Canucks’ prospect depth on the left side of their back end is rather thin beyond Jack Rathbone, and they’re going to be looking for a future top-4 defender to play behind Quinn Hughes.
For the Maple Leafs, the addition to the aforementioned top six would be a great start. But on top of that, Garland is making $4.95 million per year for the next four years, which is essentially a dream contract for a 26-year-old top-six forward. On top of his production, he brings more than just offense. He’s small in stature at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, but he plays bigger than his size and has been known to get under the skin of opposing teams in the past, which is exactly something most coaches would take on their team.
The one obstacle in mapping out a potential trade here is the money. The Maple Leafs don’t have any cap space to work with right now, so for a trade for Garland to work, they would have to send some money back the other way, and in turn, would probably ask for an additional prospect or draft pick from the Canucks. Obviously, the first player to come to mind here is Alex Kerfoot, who has one year left at $3.5 million and happens to hail from Vancouver himself. Whether it’s that, or including a third team in the deal to eat some of Garland’s contract, there would have to be a financial move made to help the deal go through. Having said that, Kyle Dubas and assistant to the general manager Brandon Pridham have found their way out of jams like this in the past.
Maple Leafs Still Shouldn’t Rush to Move Sandin
I feel like it’s important to note that if the Maple Leafs can avoid any trades or holdouts by signing Sandin, they absolutely should. I don’t think they should overpay for him, seeing that he’s played less than 100 NHL games, but it’s easy to forget about how much potential he has. It usually takes small, puck-moving defensemen like him much longer to get to the NHL, so the fact that he’s already played parts of three seasons in the league at the age of 22 should be a testament to where his game already is. Between the offensive potential, the maturity and IQ for a player his age, and an underrated physical game, there’s a lot of talent there.
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But if, and only if the Maple Leafs run into a doomsday scenario with Sandin, they should definitely entertain the idea of trading him – and if it comes to that point, Vancouver is an option. If not them, perhaps they look to a team in that rebuilding stage like the Arizona Coyotes, or maybe someone like the Philadelphia Flyers to reunite him with his brother, Linus. Either way, it’s important that the Maple Leafs keep all options open with him, and if worst comes to worst, the Canucks would be a good place to start for a potential trade.