The Toronto Maple Leafs are through their first week of the season with five of a possible six points locked up and in the bag. New faces have already made some noise for the blue and white while rookies are simply trying to get their feet under them – except defenceman Rasmus Sandin.
Sandin already plays with poise and that’s what ultimately earned him a spot on the team’s opening night roster – a spot that hasn’t been swapped out by coach Mike Babcock as of yet. That said, the young defenceman has played limited minutes and will have to earn every second of ice time that he gets throughout the season.
This week, the Maple Leafs Round Table – made up of myself along with Brenton Kemp and Chris Faria – sat down to discuss what the expectations should be for the rookie blueliner with a full season of hockey ahead of him. Should the Maple Leafs aim to get him more ice-time or should the ease him in? What’s more important – his offensive output or his overall possession numbers?
We discuss that in this week’s round table.
Forbes: Temper Expectations for Now
Ideally, for the Maple Leafs and their fans, the expectations would be astronomical for their top defensive prospect. Possession number would be through the roof and his offensive output would be good enough for Calder consideration. However, we’re not in an ideal world.
The fact is, 19-year-old defenceman are hard to come by and Sandin is the first to make the Maple Leafs roster since Morgan Rielly did it. Even then, it took Rielly a couple seasons to really reach his potential as an early first-round pick. So, the team and it’s fans will need to table their high expectations for the time being.
After all, Leafs nation loves to hand pick at least one defenceman every season and tear them down. It’s almost like tradition – Aki Berg, Larry Murphy, Tomas Kaberle and Jake Gardiner, most recently.
The goal for the Maple Leafs will be to allow Sandin to use this season to grow as a player and a professional. The skill is there – there’s absolutely no question about that. The knowledge of the game is already shining through in his game. But the growth and development will take time and that’s the only way that Sandin will ever reach his full potential.
After a 28-point season for the AHL Marlies last season, he had 10 points in 13 playoff games for the team, so it’s clear that he does have offensive charm to go along with his already impressive defensive play. But to expect a 30-point season from the rookie might be a stretch – especially with him averaging just around the 10-minute mark through his first three games.
That said, he should be able to put up 20 points on the Maple Leafs third pairing and as the season goes on he may see some power play time – possibly. But with one point in his first three games, the 19-year-old is on pace for 27 points if he plays all 82 games.
In the end, Babcock will dictate what Sandin plays, but it will be Sandin who ends up dictating how impressed the Maple Leafs head coach and brass are at the end of the season.
Faria: Sandin Poised for Success?
It’s easy to overhype young prospects. What’s not easy, though, is to impress Mike Babcock and earn a roster spot as a 19-year-old defenceman. But that’s exactly what Rasmus Sandin did, which is why it’s so hard not to be excited about the smooth-skating defenceman.
Through four preseason games, Sandin averaged over 20 minutes of ice time, including a monstrous 30:54 in Toronto’s final tun-up, a 5-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings. It was clearly a test from the head coach, and the youngster passed with flying colours. In fact, Babcock has taken such a liking to Sandin that he now only refers to him by his moniker – Sandman.
But even with his spectacular preseason play, we must remember that Sandin is just 19. And in Babcock’s world, that means he’s not exactly trustworthy. Not yet at least. The Swede played just 8:40 in his Maple Leafs debut against the Ottawa Senators, the least of any defenceman, and second-least on the team overall. And in his limited ice time, Sandin continued to impress. He led the team in on-ice shot share at 5-on-5, controlling over 72 percent of shot attempts. He also registered his first career point – a secondary assist on Trevor Moore’s second period goal.
Sandin likely has the poise, maturity, and skill to play 15-plus minutes right now, but we all know that’s not going to happen overnight. The plan will be to ease the Maple Leafs’ youngest player into his role, not because he can’t handle more, but because they can afford to take it slow. The Maple Leafs are a good team – maybe even a great team – so for the sake of Sandin’s development, don’t be surprised if he only plays eight to 12 minutes most nights, at least early on in the season. How Sandin performs in that role will likely determine his future – whether he continues to play limited minutes, sees an increase in ice time, or gets sent back down to the AHL.
Personally, I’m already sold on the kid. I think he’s extremely talented, but even more than that, he’s smart. He makes those subtle little plays that 10-year veterans don’t often make, let alone 19-year-old rookies. He’s patient with the puck and always looks to keep possession – something that this new-look Maple Leafs team will certainly look to emphasize.
I believe it’s only a matter of time until he sees an increase in ice time, and he’s probably already the fourth-best defenceman on the team right now (at least until Travis Dermott returns from injury). I don’t expect Sandman to put up a bunch of points this season, partially due to his deployment and partially due to his play style. However, I do expect him to make a positive impact at both ends of the ice, and to continue to develop into a bona fide top-four defenceman by as soon as next season.
Kemp: Easing in Sandin is Best
After an eye-popping inaugural pro season with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies a season ago, Maple Leafs’ top prospect Sandin was on the radar of many to potentially crack the club’s roster this season – especially with Dermott expected to miss roughly the first 12 to 14 games of the season.
Sandin went from the radar to a full-out lock to make the team thanks to an impressive training camp that included logging more than 30 minutes in his final preseason contest. After solidifying his opening-night spot on the Maple Leafs’ blue line, Sandin impressed in his NHL debut, notching his first NHL point – an assist on Moore’s second-period tally – despite logging just 8:58 in ice time on the evening.
That’s the first thing to expect from Sandin – light usage. While Sandin proved his worth in the preseason, he’s not going to be thrown into the NHL fire by Coach Babcock, but rather eased in. This means no special teams ice time – at least for now – and no late third-period minutes with the game on the line. Confidence is a precious trait in this league and the plan is to steadily build that for the 19-year-old Swede.
What we can also expect is something we witnessed throughout the preseason and in Wednesday night’s opener – poise. The situation never seems too big for the youngster and his elite hockey IQ allows him to play calm and collected. There’s no panic and he certainly plays much more like a seasoned veteran than he does a vastly inexperienced rookie. His head coach explained such a trait in detail.
Just don’t expect any gaudy numbers. Sure, it was nice to see the kid collect his first NHL point in short order, but the competition only increases from here and considering the extremely light usage and zero power play minutes, the numbers won’t follow, and that’s okay. Right now, it’s about learning the NHL game in small doses and continually gaining the confidence required to play in this league. Along with the player, the team wants this to be a season-long journey and not a short-term experiment that will eventually see him return to the Marlies.
The quick feet, elite hockey IQ, poise and puck-moving ability are visibly apparent. The journey has gotten off to a wonderful start, but it’s going to be a slow and steady process with the Maple Leafs’ most precious young cargo. You want to project the future and the heights that his talent can reach, but for now, the 2019-20 version of Rasmus Sandin will be a story of careful acclimation, a wildly impressive skill set and an abundance of optimism moving forward.
With all that in mind, what are you expecting from Sandin this season? What are your thoughts on his play so far? Be sure to share your ideas and opinions by commenting below, or tune in next time for more from the Maple Leafs Round Table.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.