For the first time in a long time, you can say the Toronto Maple Leafs have a strong defensive core.
It still feels weird to say that. For as long as I can remember, the Maple Leafs’ defense has always been a focal point when it comes to areas that need improvement. And after sitting through years of guys like Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, Ron Hainsey, and Cody Ceci on the top pairing, the team finally has a stable defensive core. Granted, it’s still not perfect, but give me a top four of Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, and Justin Holl over anything the Maple Leafs have iced over the past 15 years or so.
The Maple Leafs also have a strong pool of prospects on the back end. Rasmus Sandin leads the pack, with guys like Timothy Liljegren, Topi Niemela, Mikko Kokkonen, and Filip Kral waiting in the wings as well. Being the Maple Leafs’ first-round pick in 2018, Sandin is obviously the hot commodity here.
A Top-4 Defenseman of the Future
It’s safe to say Sandin has been developing faster than the Maple Leafs anticipated when they drafted him. Only one year removed from the draft, he suited up for the Toronto Marlies in 2018-19 and finished the season with 28 points in 44 games. And now, he’s making a serious case to stay in the lineup down the stretch despite only being 21 years old.
The challenge the Leafs face now is when and how they’re going fit Sandin into their lineup. The left side as it stands features Rielly, Muzzin, and Travis Dermott. Muzzin is locked in for the next four years, and while Dermott is probably expendable, you won’t get much out of Sandin’s development if he’s buried on the bottom pairing.
I never thought I would see myself writing a piece like this around this time two years ago. But if the organization really wants to groom Sandin into the top-4, maybe even top-2 defenseman that he has the potential to be, Rielly might have to be the odd man out.
Before we get into the specifics on why it would have to be Rielly on his way out, let’s talk about how Sandin got to where he is today.
Sandin’s Development in High Gear
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody when the Maple Leafs picked Sandin in 2018. Some traditional fans, of course, were upset that they used their first-round pick on a small-ish Swedish defenseman instead of a good ol’ Canadian boy with size (as if arguably the best defenseman in franchise history wasn’t also a puck-moving Swede).
But between Sandin being a Kyle Dubas type of player and the top defenseman on the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds in his draft year, it seemed like all of the cards lined up perfectly. The Maple Leafs had their guy. Fast forward to the following season. Because Sandin hails from Sweden, he was allowed to suit up for the Marlies immediately. He showed almost no signs of growing pains, putting up 28 points in 44 games, as I mentioned before.
His impressive rookie season in the AHL earned him a spot in the Maple Leafs’ lineup to open the 2019-20 season. He would go on to split time between the NHL and the AHL that season, registering eight points in 28 NHL games and 15 points through 21 AHL games.
This year has been a bit of a different story. With the NHL’s unconventional January start and the AHL not getting underway until February, Sandin started the season with the Maple Leafs. But since they had Mikko Lehtonen (who has since been traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets) at the time, there really wasn’t room for Sandin to suit up.
Once the AHL season began, the organization re-assigned Sandin to the AHL to get him some regular playing time. But after suffering a foot injury while blocking a shot in his first game back, he would go on to miss almost two months. Now, with Zach Bogosian out for at least four weeks, it appears Sandin finally has a shot to get some regular minutes.
Why Replace Rielly?
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve always been a huge fan of Rielly, and I feel like as the longest-serving Maple Leaf to this point, the treatment he’s received from some fans is unfair. He’s almost certainly looking like one of the best players to come out of the 2012 NHL Draft, and it’s safe to say the team has definitely gotten their money’s worth with that pick.
Granted, Rielly hasn’t really looked like the same player over the past two seasons. His decision-making appears to have taken a hit, and while he’s still putting up points, there are holes in his defensive game that are starting to show more often than not.
The one aspect of Rielly’s game that’s created cause for concern is his confidence. We’ve seen firsthand how bad the power play has been of late, and while he certainly isn’t solely to blame for the issues, he hasn’t quite looked like the dominant power-play quarterback that we’ve seen him be in previous years.
More often than not, he’ll hesitate while settling into the offensive zone, allowing the penalty killers to box him out and clear the puck easier. And even when it comes down to little things like deciding whether to pass or shoot the puck, Rielly’s become a much more conservative player on the point, which isn’t what you want on the power play.
The weirdest part about Rielly’s issues this year is that it’s arguably the first time he’s been paired with a legitimate top-four defenseman that complements his game, or should, anyways. After years and years of being paired with the likes of Hunwick, Polak, Ceci, and Hainsey, he finally has a stable defensive partner in Brodie. But if anything, it’s only exposed some of the flaws in the Vancouver native’s defensive game.
The other part about Rielly that worries me is his pending contract situation. He’s on the books for one more year with an average annual value of $5 million. And given his history as a puck-moving, offensive defenseman who’s capable of 60 points a season, I feel like there’s reason to believe he could demand $7 to $8 million a year.
When I predict a number like that, I look at similar defensemen and the contracts they signed when they were in the same situation as Rielly. Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed a seven-year contract with the Arizona Coyotes worth $8.25 million a year. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang signed a seven-year contract worth $7.25 million a year. Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon signed a six-year contract worth roughly $7.5 million a year.
With Rielly only two seasons removed from a 72-point campaign in 2018-19 and, like I said, the ability to put up roughly 60 points a year, I have a hard time imagining Rielly won’t ask for at least $7 million a year. And at this point, the Maple Leafs know what they have in him as a player.
And between having to worry about Zach Hyman’s contract this summer and eventually the big three in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, I don’t think they would feel comfortable committing that much money to Rielly. Especially since he has somewhat exposed himself as more of a one-dimensional defenseman.
Colorado Avalanche Had Similar Dilemma
There’s another situation that I like to compare this one to, and that’s what the Colorado Avalanche went through when they traded Tyson Barrie to Toronto prior to the 2019-20 season. Barrie was in a very similar situation to Rielly when the Avalanche traded him. Fresh off of 59- and 57-point seasons in 2018-19 and 2017-18, respectively, and with one year left on his contract, the team traded him knowing that they had top prospect Cale Makar ready to make the jump.
The only difference between the Barrie situation and this one is that expectations for Makar were most certainly higher than the ones the Maple Leafs have for Sandin. Makar has quickly established himself as one of the NHL’s top defensemen, whereas Sandin might take a couple of years to become a furnished top-four defenseman.
But aside from that, everything else checks out. The Avalanche moved their best offensive defenseman knowing they likely wouldn’t be able to afford his next contract and that his replacement was staring down the barrel of a full-time NHL job. And so far, it’s worked out for them.
Despite all of the points I’ve made throughout this article, I still think the day Rielly leaves is going to be a sad one. As I said, he’s the longest-serving Leaf at this point and he’s been in a leadership role for them ever since Matthews and Marner entered the league. He’s certainly loved around the dressing room and it’s likely not going to be a popular move among the players.
I certainly don’t think the Maple Leafs’ brass is in any rush to sweep him out the door, but you’d have to imagine that at some point, the team is going to look to a cheaper option to run on the left side. If Sandin keeps playing the way he is, I don’t see any other way to get him into a role that will further his development. Especially if they can save some money along the way.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.