Maple Leafs’ Rasmus Sandin Deserving of Recall

The last week and a half has been an emotional roller coaster for Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin, who captured a bronze medal with Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic on Sunday.

Rasmus Sandin emerged as a star for Sweden at the World Juniors, prompting questions about his readiness for the NHL. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

After going undefeated in round-robin play, the smooth-skating defenceman emerged as a key offensive weapon for Sweden through the knockout rounds. Sandin tallied two assists in a 5-0 trouncing of the hosts in the quarterfinals and then had his true coming out party in the semis against Russia where he collected two goals and two assists. Tied 4-4 after regulation, the game was decided in 3-on-3 overtime, where Sandin was unfortunately exposed by Ivan Morozov on the game-winning goal.

Despite the disappointing loss to Russia, Sandin and the Swedes collected themselves and defeated rival Finland 3-2 for the bronze, winning just their third medal in the past seven World Junior tournaments. With his game-opening goal, Sandin collected his 10th point of the tournament, finishing tied for fifth in scoring (first among defensemen), while joining an elite tier of defenders over the past decade.

Sandin’s impressive showing was also good enough to earn him honours as best defenceman. He also earned a spot on the tournament all-star team, becoming the first Maple Leaf to do so since Auston Matthews in 2016.

And while it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a high-level tournament like the World Juniors, Sandin’s impressive play has extended far beyond the last 11 days. In fact, he’s been so good with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League that it seems like a call up in the second half is all but inevitable.

That said, is it in Sandin’s best interests to make the jump to the NHL, or should he continue developing with the Marlies? And if the Maple Leafs do decide to recall the 19-year-old, what will the implications be for Sandin and the rest of the roster?

Recapping Sandin’s Season So Far

You may recall that Sandin had an exceptional training camp with the Maple Leafs and actually played himself into a role with the team for the first six games of the regular season. While he certainly has the head for the NHL game, it appeared that Sandin was overmatched by the physicality of the bigger, faster opposition, which eventually led to his demotion back to the Marlies. And given that he was averaging just over 12 minutes per game with the big club, the move made sense for the developing defenceman.

Since being sent back to the Marlies, Sandin has been relied upon as a top option on the blue line. Through his 19 games before the World Juniors, Sandin tallied two goals and 10 assists – good for second on the team among defenceman to fellow Swede Timothy Liljegren, who has had a breakout season of his own.

Fellow Swede Timothy Liljegren is having a breakout season with the Marlies as well, having scored 22 points in 31 games this season. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sandin, however, arguably boasts a more well-rounded game as an excellent puck mover and capable defender, who plays bigger than his 5-foot-11 frame may suggest. His heady style of play would likely mesh well with the high-flying Maple Leafs, who have put an even greater emphasis on moving the puck and activating their defencemen this season.

The Case For Giving Sandin Another Shot

According to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, Sandin is likely the favourite to fill in for the Maple Leafs given his prior NHL experience, should they decide to call someone up. With Jake Muzzin still out week-to-week with a broken foot, it may make sense to give Sandin another shot while he’s riding the high of his dominant showing at the World Juniors.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Sandin will likely be given another chance to play for the Maple Leafs this season. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

There are a few things for the Maple Leafs’ front office to take into consideration before making their decision, though, with the primary talking point being his age and development.

At 19-years-old, Sandin is one of just eight teenagers to suit up as a defenceman for an NHL game this season, which really puts into perspective just how young he is. The thing about Sandin, though, is that he displays a sense of maturity and composure well beyond his years. The real question will be how much ice time Sandin would get with the big club this time around. Is playing 10 or 12 heavily sheltered minutes a night really what’s best for a young player? Maybe not. If the Maple Leafs do decide to give Sandin another chance, they’ll need to consider both his immediate usage and the impact it may have on his long-term development.

The second issue for a potential call up would be Sandin’s contract situation. If he were to reach the 10-game threshold at the NHL level this season, it would count as the first year of his entry-level contract, making him a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022. Given that the Maple Leafs are a team in win-now mode and that their defence will likely be overhauled next season with Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci coming off the books as unrestricted free agents, Sandin’s contract situation shouldn’t be a huge concern.

Further to the point, because this is Sandin’s 19-year-old season, surpassing the 10-game limit will not count as a professional season as it relates to the upcoming 2021 expansion draft. This means that he will be exempt from the draft and thus will not have to be protected.

Sandin’s contract situation won’t be of concern to the Maple Leafs as he will be exempt from the upcoming 2021 expansion draft. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The final (and perhaps most important) thing to consider is simply how Sandin would impact the team’s performance. Would he be an improvement over anyone on the current roster? And will the red hot Maple Leafs, who are 15-5-1 since Sheldon Keefe took over, want to disrupt a winning formula?

In Muzzin’s absence the Maple Leafs recalled Martin Marincin, who has been playing alongside Justin Holl. Despite the usual fan frustration with Marincin, he’s actually put up some strong on-ice results over the past four games, with the Maple Leafs controlling nearly 55 percent of the shot attempts and over 5 percent of the expected goals with him on the ice at 5-on-5. Before the Maple Leafs’ 6-4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night, where basically the whole team looked bad, Marincin’s numbers were even better. To top it off, he’s outscored the opposition 4-1 in about 75 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.

Will Marincin be able to sustain such a high level of play over a longer stretch? Probably not. But would Sandin do any better? It’s tough to say without actually seeing him in action. But if they want to see how he fits, now would be a good time to give him a chance.

There is also the possibility that the Maple Leafs trade Ceci before the deadline, which has been speculated for a while now. With Muzzin back in the lineup by then, the final spot would once again be up for grabs between Sandin and Marincin.

Cody Ceci may serve as trade bait at the upcoming trade deadline, in which Sandin could be called up to fill the void. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ultimately the decision will come down to whether the Maple Leafs believe Sandin is ready to take on an increased role with the team in his second stint. Keefe has shown a willingness to experiment with his lineup so far and it may be worth giving the young Swede another look to determine if he can help the club down the stretch and potentially into the playoffs.

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