Maple Leafs’ Sandin Poised for Breakout Season in 2021-22

When Rasmus Sandin was still available mid-way through the first round of the 2018 NHL draft, he wasn’t sure how things were going to play out. The Toronto Maple Leafs at #25 he knew would be interested, but little did he know they would make him sweat it out. General manager Kyle Dubas had a chance to select him initially but ended up moving down to #29 to acquire an additional third-round pick from the St Louis Blues. A few selections later, Sandin was still on the board, and the rest is history.

The Maple Leafs had the Swedish defenseman ranked very high on their priority list as Sandin’s connection to Dubas was highly documented. The two had ties via the Sault St Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Sandin was a first-round selection via the Import Draft and committed to the team in 2017, meanwhile, Dubas had been the general manager, and a huge part of why the junior franchise was turned around from 2011-2014. There’s no doubt this comfort level, and all the extra information the GM was able to obtain, played a major role in making the pick. Also worth noting, this was the first pick of any draft for the newly minted general manager, so it made all the sense in the world for him to go back to his roots to find some talent.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Kyle Dubas continues to be loyal to the Sault St Marie Greyhounds (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

After one season in the OHL, where he dominated most nights, Sandin made his way to the American Hockey League (AHL) and opened up the season with the Toronto Marlies as an 18-year-old. While some felt he was too small to play in the league, Sandin proved his doubters wrong. He finished his first AHL season with 28 points in 44 regular-season games and chipped in 10 assists in 13 postseason games. It was an impressive campaign for the mobile defenseman who showed off his skating abilities, accurate first-pass, and a hockey IQ that was off the charts. Sandin was selected to the AHL’s all-star game as a Marlies representative.

Sandin’s Arrival to Maple Leafs Fast-Tracked But Calculated

The 2019-20 season was a huge step in the development process for Sandin as he managed to appear in 28 regular-season games for the Leafs and showed well. He recorded eight points in 28 games that year and saw an average of 14:19 of ice-time a night. Instead of pinning him to the bench, the coaching staff “released the hound,” and there were times during games, Sandin would be matched up against some of the league’s top players.

The Maple Leafs were battered and bruised early on in the season and relied on Sandin. Many felt the young defenseman was in the NHL to stay after his initial introduction to the show, but as we would come to find out after, he would be suiting up for the Marlies again. He ended up playing 21 games for the Marlies in 2019-20, recording 15 points. Little did he know the next couple of years were going to be derailed off the development track.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a huge damper on Sandin’s development. He ended up going essentially a calendar year without playing in a hockey game. While some of the Leafs’ prospects were signing deals overseas to see some ice-time, Sandin stayed in Toronto and trained. All he wanted to do was play for the club, and it showed.

This Season Was Supposed to Be the Coming Out Party

Sandin’s 2020-21 season did not go as planned after he was sent down to the Marlies after just one game with the big club. Bad changed to worse as he was injured on Feb 15 while blocking a shot in an AHL game and would end up missing several weeks of action. It wasn’t until Apr 20 in Vancouver when Sandin made his way back on the ice as the Maple Leafs took on the Canucks. This would be the start of an interesting couple of months for the former first-round pick.

Sandin went on to play nine regular-season games for the Leafs this past season, recording four assists. Some nights he would see 13 minutes of ice time, while other nights, he was over 21. It was obvious head coach Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff were trying to do what they could to pick their spots with the now 21-year-old defenseman. One play that stands out in 2020-21 is this hit he laid on Winnipeg Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler. When Sandin first showed up to the Maple Leafs, he would shy away from contact, now he’s initiating it with reverse hits.

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The native of Uppsala Sweden would also end up appearing in five of the seven games during the first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens. The two nights he didn’t play, Sandin was subbed out for Travis Dermott, who is one player ‘in the way’ of a regular spot in the Leafs’ lineup. Next season that could be vastly different.

Dubas’ Offseason Moves Could Lead to Sandin Being Handed the Keys

While Dermott is a restricted free agent and someone who will likely be signed to then be exposed for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft (Sandin is exempt as a second-year player), this could be step one for his permanent role next season in the Maple Leafs’ top-six. He should be playing over Dermott and has a much higher ceiling of potential. Toronto is better suited with Sandin in the lineup, and more specifically, on their first power-play unit.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly getting moved out of Toronto could open up a massive opportunity for Sandin (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Along with Dermott in the way, long-time Maple Leaf Morgan Rielly is another speed bump for Sandin’s fast track. The two were interchanged on the first unit of the power play to end the season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While Rielly has shown in previous seasons, including a 72-point campaign in 2018-19 that he’s capable of producing offensively, he became a glorified neutral zone drop-passer and was not a threat on the man advantage, hardly ever taking a shot. Sandin stepped in and showed he’s able to connect on one-timers and make heady plays to keep the puck alive and on the sticks on the Leafs’ biggest weapons.

A big thing to watch this summer is the Rielly trade talk. The long-time Maple Leafs’ name has popped up as an option to be moved to acquire some help on the wing. The 27-year-old is in the final season of his contract, and it sounds like it’s either extension or trade this summer for the two-way defender. If Rielly is dealt, it’s a massive vote of confidence to Sandin and how management feels about his development into the team’s top-four.

2021-22 Will Be Sandin’s Best Season of His Young Career

The NHL will feel like a ‘normal’ season once again this fall, and that should benefit everyone involved, Sandin included. He’s been through not playing for extremely long stretches, as he’s battled untimely injuries and has clawed for a regular spot on the roster. That should all be changing next season.

Regardless if the Maple Leafs don’t trade Rielly for some forward help or lose Dermott to the Kraken’s expansion draft, Sandin is penciled into the lineup on opening night, and quite frankly, his name should be in permanent marker. The defenseman’s skating ability and hockey IQ are already elite attributes, and another summer of getting stronger for the battles with the likes of the Tom Wilson’s of the world will go a long way in his success. Expect Sandin to also take the offseason to continue to work on his one-timer as if he can add a little more velocity to his shot speed, as it’s going to do nothing but help open up another threat offensively for the Maple Leafs.

Expect to see Sandin on the first power-play unit opening night, and never again in an AHL jersey. His skill set is off the charts for a 21-year-old and the sky is the limit with his ceiling of potential. All the adversity he’s been through should subside, however, these experiences has created a layer of thick skin and an ability to overcome obstacles, which is almost exactly what the doctor orders in Toronto. It’s going to be smoother sailing from here on for Sandin with the Maple Leafs, and it all begins next season.

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