Maple Leafs’ Sandin Has Higher Potential Than Rielly

Let’s start this post with a straightforward prediction. We like Morgan Rielly as a defenseman. But we like Rasmus Sandin more. We think Sandin’s upside is greater; and, by the end of their NHL careers, we believe that Sandin will become a better defenseman than Rielly.

Rielly’s Had a Great Career and There’s No Comparison – Right Now

Sandin has played a grand total of 37 regular-season games and five playoffs games. Rielly has played 572 regular-season games and 32 playoff games. Rielly has averaged over a half a point a game in his career, and he had a high of 72 points in 82 games during the 2018-19 season. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Rasmus Sandin’s Development Derailed For Two Reasons

In short, Rielly’s been a good defenseman; and, he even finished fifth in the voting for best defenseman in the league after one season. Furthermore, he’ll be paid for it. When the contracts that have been signed for elite defensemen this offseason are considered, there’s a good chance he’ll ink a new contract – somewhere – for close to $9 million. But there’s a better chance that his next deal won’t be with the Maple Leafs.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In fact, we’re here to say that, although we’ll miss Rielly on the defense, we believe that when all is said and done Sandin is going to become a better defenseman than Rielly was.  

Comparing Their Early Careers 

Let’s compare both their numbers at the same point in their careers. 

The season after Rielly was picked fifth in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, he went on to score 12 goals and 52 points in 60 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors. That’s a 0.20 goal and an 0.87 point-per-game pace. 

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

The season before Sandin was drafted 29th in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, he scored 12 goals and 45 points in 51 games for the Soo Greyhounds. That’s a 0.24 goal and an 0.88 point-per-game pace.

Rasmus Sandin, OHL, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
The Leafs bolstered their blue line by grabbing Rasmus Sandin at 25th overall.
(Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Rielly only played 14 games for the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies. Those games came after the Warriors finished their season in 2013. Sandin has played 66 games with the Marlies over the past three seasons, including the entire 2018-19 season. Since then, he’s been up and down between the Marlies and the Maple Leafs.

Why the Difference in Time with the Marlies?

The difference of time spent in the AHL has less to do with the skill of both players than the state of the Maple Leafs’ defense in 2013-14. The team was not very good defensively in 2013. Their defense included players like Peter Granberg, Mark Fraser, Tim Gleason, and Paul Ranger. The paucity of a solid defense meant that Rielly jumped right to the big club. As it was, the Maple Leafs were an 84-point team during the 2013-14 season (38-36-8).

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The year Sandin was drafted, the Maple Leafs had just come off of a 105 point season. Their top four defensemen were Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, and Nikita Zaitsev. As a result, there was no reason to rush Sandin into the NHL. Instead, he joined the Marlies.  

As a result we don’t have AHL stats to really compare.  

Comparing Sandin and Rielly’s First 37 NHL Games

Comparing Rielly’s and Sandin’s (which is the extent of his NHL career) first 37 regular-season games played in the NHL, they look exactly alike. Rielly scored one goal and 11 assists for 12 points. Sandin scored one goal and 11 assists for 12 points.

Even Considering Sandin’s Two Playoff Giveaways

The elephant in the room for many Maple Leafs fans is that they recall the two obvious errors Sandin made during the 2021 playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens that led to goals. Agreed, they were bad giveaways and obvious rookie mistakes. But, given the number of games Sandin has played, he’s virtually still a rookie. And, rookies make rookie mistakes. 

All NHL players regularly make mistakes. Sandin’s made them; Rielly’s made them. Even non-rookies like Jake Muzzin make them. Season after season, Maple Leafs’ defensemen make mistakes. In that, the Maple Leafs are no different than any NHL team. 

However, Really Watching Sandin Play …

Our opinion that Sandin will become a better defenseman than Rielly is based upon watching Sandin play. And, by that, we don’t mean watching him as a casual fan. Instead, we mean really watching him play. That’s where Stan comes in more than I do.

Related: Maple Leafs in the 2022 Olympics: Could be the Best of Times or the Worst for their Fans

Really watching Sandin means focusing on what he does with and without the puck. It includes how he positions himself to give his partner an easy outlet pass. It includes how Sandin moves the puck up ice, either by skating it or passing it. It also includes how he positions himself defensively without the puck, covering for his partner when his partner pinches and how he makes the smart plays with the puck in both the offensive and defensive zones. 

In all those areas, Sandin is already a solid player.

One Difference Between Sandin and Rielly Is Size

Obviously, there’s a size difference between the 6-foot-1, 219-pound Rielly and the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Sandin. However, if fans believe Sandin is too small or not physical enough, we’ve seen him make opposing players note his number after they’ve been stood up or knocked down by his strength. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammates (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

This physical ability comes from a 21-year-old player whose body is still growing from a young man into a more physically-mature man. 

Sandin Is Still Growing and Still Learning

Sandin is growing both physically and experientially. He continues to learn and gain experience playing the game at the NHL level. Those who study the game of hockey suggest that it takes between 250 and 300 games for a defenseman to really figure this game out.

In fact, an academic analysis of this topic estimates that “the scoring peak age is between 27 and 28 for forwards and between 28 and 29 for defensemen. Both forwards and defensemen exhibit near-peak performance over a wide range, going from about 24 to 32 and 24 to 34, respectively.” (from “Estimating the effects of age on NHL player performance, James Brander, Edward J. Egan, Louisa Yeung (University of British Columbia), (2014), Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports 10(2). DOI:10.1515/jqas-2013-0085)

In Addition to the Academic Analysis

However, building on what the academic research found about peak performance for NHL defensemen, our prediction for these two defensemen is that, by the time Sandin reaches the age of his peak performance, he’ll be as good as Rielly offensively and better than Rielly will ever be defensively.  

Related: Maple Leafs in a Tough Spot with Defenseman Morgan Rielly

If Rielly stays with the team, that’s great. We hope it happens. However, should Rielly leave – which it looks like he will – we believe the Maple Leafs’ defense will be in good hands with Sandin.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]