Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Reviewing Sandin & Ristolainen

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’m going to look at two young defensemen named Rasmus. First, I’ll look at Rasmus Sandin and speculate on what the team will do with him. Second, I’ll take a longer look at the Buffalo Sabres’ Rasmus Ristolainen and try to better understand what he might bring to the Maple Leafs.

Item One: What Will Happen with Rasmus Sandin?

Watching Rasmus Sandin’s play this season with the Maple Leafs, he didn’t seem like a rookie defenseman to me. Obviously, he’s young and still growing – and every so often he got outmuscled for a puck; however, that even happens to veteran defensemen. But, overall my assessment is that Sandin played better than expected at the NHL level. 

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Given what I saw this season, his level of play wasn’t a surprise. During training camp, he pushed hard to make the opening night roster and was given the thumbs-up by fellow Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly who said, “He’s been outstanding.”

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Sandin next showcased his talents at the World Junior Championships and was named the best defenseman of the tournament after scoring three goals and seven assists in seven games and helping lead Team Sweden to a bronze medal.

After watching Sandin play against Russia, Craig Button tweeted, “Hey @MapleLeafs fans. @Rasmussandin is clearly the best defenseman here. Not close. Every single area of the game, he’s been brilliant.” That’s high praise from Button, who’s especially good at evaluating young prospects.

This season, the first-round selection during the 2018 NHL Entry Draft scored two goals and 15 points in 21 contests with the Toronto Marlies. He also scored a goal and seven assists with the Maple Leafs in 28 games and had a 10-point performance at the 2020 World Juniors. His developmental season with the Marlies had a hiccup because he was needed to cover significant injuries on the Maple Leafs defense, but Sandin’s done nothing but solidify his value to the organization.

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The young Swede has, through all his ups and downs this season, showed considerable poise and talent. He’s played on the power play and has assumed increasing responsibilities at five-on-five. At only 19 years old, he’ll grow, and he’ll get better.

I’m interested to see how much he’ll play during the upcoming play-in tournament against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Although Sandin logged 28 games with the team, for almost the first time this season the entire Maple Leafs defense will be healthy. Will head coach Sheldon Keefe opt to play his most experienced defensemen? Where might Sandin fit in?

Given the consensus that both Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci will be elsewhere next season and the NHL will have a flat salary cap, the Maple Leafs likely have little option but to play Sandin full-time in the NHL next season.

Given what I’ve seen this season, I’m fine with that.

Item Two: Looking at Buffalo Sabres Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen

In a post late last week, I reported the rumour that the Maple Leafs and the Sabres had talked about a trade deadline deal that would have brought defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to Toronto for Alex Kerfoot and Andreas Johnsson. However, the trade was apparently called off by the Maple Leafs because the Sabres wanted key players from Toronto’s roster that were needed for the postseason.

Rasmus Ristolainen Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rumours also suggested that neither team had cancelled the trade, and they remained in conversation but were waiting until the Leafs were ready, which likely means whenever the Maple Leafs’ postseason ends.

As I noted earlier, the consensus is that the Maple Leafs won’t bring back Barrie or Ceci. Ristolainen and Barrie seem similar in many ways except that the Finn is much bigger (five inches taller) and more physical. Both are reputed to be at their best when quarterbacking the power play, and both are seen to have defensive shortcomings.

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Ristolainen brings something to the Maple Leafs that general manager Kyle Dubas likes, and that’s term. He has two more seasons on a $5.4 million contract. Barrie, although the Colorado Avalanche were paying part of his contract, earned $5.5 million this season before becoming an unrestricted free agent. Comparing the two, I’m guessing the Sabres defenseman is a better all-around player. In addition, Ristolainen seems to fit more into the Maple Leafs’ system.

I can also see why the Sabres would want Kerfoot (I like him as a player, but he’s replaceable on the Maple Leafs) and Johnsson. Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger will appreciate Kerfoot’s attitude and his intelligence. Johnsson is a no-brainer. He’s a second-line player who, on most teams, would be a star. He’s capable of scoring 20 goals a season for the foreseeable future and is signed to a team-friendly contract for the next three years.

For those who don’t know Krueger, he’s an intellectual who’s consumed by leadership. He wrote a book on the subject that was a best-seller in Europe. He’s advised top corporations around the world, had a seat at the World Economic Forum in Davos and served as the chairman of Southampton FC in soccer’s English Premier League. In short, he might covet a smart player – and that would be Kerfoot, who has a Harvard education.

Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger
Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Ristolainen’s a good young defenseman and his $5.4 million contract for the next three seasons isn’t out of line. There must have been something Krueger liked because he was the Sabres’ number one defenseman in minutes played (1,573) and averaged 22:48 of ice time per game. Although some hockey commentators criticize the concept of + / – as a useful statistic, I don’t, and Ristolainen improved from minus-41 in 2018-19 to minus-2 this season.

When I add up these three facts: (1) Ristolainen played more minutes than any other Sabres defenseman; (2) in all those minutes he was minus-2; and (3) in 69 games this season, the Sabres scored 195 goals and gave up 217 for a minus-22 differential. It wasn’t all his fault.

As well, I can see why the Maple Leafs might want Ristolainen on their team. He adds a physical presence. During the 2019-20 season, he ranked sixth in the NHL and first among defensemen with 203 hits. He’s also blocked 780 shots in his seven-season NHL career.

Keefe will recall he had a game-high five hits during a February 5-2 Sabres win over the Maple Leafs. Although critics point out that Ristolainen logs many hits because when he’s on the ice, the Sabres simply don’t have the puck much, which seems an oversimplification.

Rasmus Ristolainen Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It makes sense to me that two players with equal talents and skills could be more valuable on one team than another depending on the team’s offensive philosophy, other teammates’ complementary skills, and how a coach deploys them.

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If so, Ristolainen’s ideal role would be as a second-pair defenseman who could quarterback the power play and avoid penalty-kill minutes. He provides value as a power-play driver. In short, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound, 25-year-old veteran might be a good fit for the Maple Leafs.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Now that Dubas knows the Maple Leafs must work with a flat salary cap, he and his team can begin making plans for the future after this season’s postseason. In some ways, given the team’s plethora of young players who could rise to play on the roster, the team might not be in as bad salary-cap shape as fans think.

What the salary cap means for the team will be an interesting question going forward.