Seeing as the number of open jobs on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster for this season is minimal, there is going to be a lot of competition when it comes to the Maple Leafs defense. With the top four all set in stone with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, the third pairing is where things are going to get interesting for those fighting for a spot. It’s their chance to prove that they are capable of playing at the NHL level.
Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin hopes to earn a spot on the roster come opening night. After a strong first year at the pro level, he could make the interview process difficult for head coach Mike Babcock and his staff. While there is the option of over-ripening him, as they did with Travis Dermott, for him to make the team isn’t entirely out of the question.
His Transition to the Pro Level was Strong
When the Maple Leafs drafted Sandin 29th overall in 2018, they were getting a smart, consistent two-way defenseman. After putting up 45 points in 51 games in his draft year, he made the transition to the pro level. For some players, it takes a while to get acclimated with the pace and speed when leaving junior hockey. For him, it was a seamless transition.
While he missed some time due to injury, Sandin managed to tally 28 points in 44 games. That may not seem like a great amount, but among players under 21, he ranked eighth in scoring among defenseman in the American Hockey League. That equates to a 0.64 points per game average. That itself is respectable for a rookie player at the pro level. But what makes his transition even more remarkable is his ability to adapt and adjust to the level while becoming an integral part of the Toronto Marlies defense.
On TSN’s Overdrive, Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe applauded Sandin’s maturity and composure as a player is what stood out. While he’s been getting praise from the coach, he is happy with his progression and feels that he’s gotten faster and stronger during this off-season to prepare for the upcoming season.
While watching Sandin with the Marlies and the Maple Leafs in pre-season last year, I noticed a calm demeanor when he plays. He doesn’t panic and he always makes the right decision with the puck. He’s quick in transition to move the play up and he never strays away from his coverage in the defensive zone. If he has this consistent play throughout the pre-season, then his chances to make the roster will increase.
The Opportunity Is There for the Taking
Opportunities always come for the taking in the NHL. This is the case with Sandin as he’s battling for a spot on the left-hand side while Dermott is out. Sandin is hungry for this opportunity. On top of that, he’s earned praise from not just his head coach, but from his former general manager and current Maple Leaf manager, Kyle Dubas.
During the World Junior Showcase, Dubas was interviewed by Tessa Bonhomme from TSN and discussed the team’s prospects. He went in-depth on Sandin’s development and what he can bring to the team:
“Rasmus had a great year as an 18-year-old in the American League,” Dubas said. “Rasmus this year was able to end up playing in our top pair and play, especially in the playoffs and down the stretch, he was playing well over 20 minutes a night and playing all situations. He had a great season. He developed very well and all credit has to go to him for the work that he put in to get there.
“He is going to have a great chance in camp. We’ve got a real good battle coming on the backend… It’s going to be wide open.”
Dubas is on point with his assessment and outlook.
I’m not suggesting that Sandin is automatically getting a spot but after Dubas’ and Keefe’s comments, his chances are good to get in to that depth role. It’s evident as he’s already attending the training camp and missed the Rookie Tournament, along with fellow Marlies teammate, Timothy Liljegren.
Sandin will get to his true potential at some point, as his transition from junior hockey to the pro level exceeded expectations. But if he continues to develop properly he could easily get into a top-four spot. However, the spot could go to someone more experienced like Ben Harpur.
Decision Could be Contract Based
The coaching staff would need to make a decision. If his pre-season is strong and he is ready for the NHL, they can further evaluate him with the nine-game tryout. If he stays past the nine-game mark and plays his 10th game, which would start his entry-level contract. If he gets sent down before then, then his contract would slide to next season.
The problem is, would the Maple Leafs be willing to start Sandin’s entry-level contract for probably a month until Dermott returns from shoulder surgery? And if Dermott comes back and Sandin is on the roster for 40 games, even if he doesn’t play, that will make him eligible for unrestricted free-agent status quicker.
These are crucial decisions the team would have to make. They could wait it out and use Sandin as a call up later in the season, instead of burning a year off his ELC right away. They can keep him down in the AHL, until the team feels that they’re ready to play him. But if they feel that he deserves to be in the league and that he can get the ice-time, then they’ll definitely keep him up.
For Sandin, this is an opportunity he wants to make the best of. He wants to make the decision as difficult as possible for the coaching staff and management in order for him to prove that he deserves a spot on this team. Whether he makes it or not, he will be with the team at some point this year.