Maple Leafs’ Rasmus Sandin Has Little Choice But to Become a Star

Had Toronto Maple Leafs young defenseman Rasmus Sandin fallen on his face in his return to the NHL, the narrative would have been different. However, far from playing poorly, Sandin played extremely well. In fact, after the team’s 7-4 win over the New Jersey Devils, Sandin had played well enough that – using blue circles and arrows – hockey analysts reviewed exactly how wise his choices were, how good his footwork was, and how his play had ignited the offense.

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As a result, yesterday’s narrative was about the team’s broken blue line because defenseman Morgan Rielly is out for eight weeks. Today the narrative is much more hopeful – something like, the team will really miss Rielly, but what a great chance for Sandin to play and, in the long run, Rielly’s injury might actually be a blessing in disguise.

Sandin’s Successful Return to the NHL

Against the Devils, Sandin and the team played well. Specifically, the 19-year-old Swedish defenseman scored two assists in the first contest of what promises to be a long stretch of games he will play with the big club. My guess is that he’ll probably never again play with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. It was his first NHL game since Oct. 12 and, because one of his assists came with the man advantage, it’s clear head coach Sheldon Keefe is going to engage the youngster in the full range of on-ice action – five-on-five, special teams, all of it.

Toronto Maple Leafs Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

How good is this young Swede? Watching his performance, it didn’t seem as if Sandin was an NHL rookie or that he hadn’t played at the NHL level for three months. He played over 16 minutes of confident hockey; and, although he didn’t score a goal, he blasted shots on net and his two assists give him four in seven NHL career games. In my eyes, he looks special.

Sandin Made the Maple Leafs Roster Out of Training Camp

Sandin’s current level of play really shouldn’t come as a surprise – during training camp, he pushed hard to make the team’s opening night roster. Ironically, fellow defenseman Morgan Rielly weighed in then on Sandin’s play after his first preseason games. His assessment? “He’s been outstanding.”

However, at the time, Sandin’s entry-level status worked against him. Although he was playing beyond his years, similar to his young teammate Travis Dermott last season, Sandin’s ability to move freely back-and-forth between the Maple Leafs and the Marlies without passing through waivers hurt his chances of making the roster.

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Because, during training camp, the other contenders for the Maple Leafs bottom defensive pairings had to clear waivers, it seemed as if Sandin’s NHL career would begin next season instead of this season. Talent or no talent, he would be on next season’s roster.

How things have changed.

Sandin’s Success at the World Junior Tournament Last Month

All season, Sandin’s showcased his talent. First, he played well at training camp; then he followed that up at the World Junior Championship. And, the Maple Leafs caught a break (no pun intended) when, during the World Junior game just prior to the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic, Sandin took a nasty slash to his arm and left the game. Fortunately, X-rays showed no fracture and he was able to finish the tournament.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Obviously, it was a hugely successful 2020 World Junior Championship for Sandin personally. He was named the best defenseman of the tournament after scoring three goals and seven assists in seven games and helping lead his Swedish team to a bronze medal.

Craig Button tweeted, after watching Sandin play against Russia, “Hey @MapleLeafs fans. @Rasmussandin is clearly the best defenseman here. Not close. Every single area of the game, he’s been brilliant.” For Button, who’s especially good at evaluating young prospects, that’s high praise.

Obviously, Button wasn’t alone in calling Sandin the best defenseman on the ice at the World Juniors. Other hockey commentators noted Sandin’s skill and came to believe that, if the Maple Leafs were serious about making a run for the Stanley Cup this season, especially considering the team’s injuries, Sandin should be a part of their lineup. As noted earlier, this assessment came even prior to Rielly’s injury.

On Jan. 4, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston agreed with Button when he overviewed Sandin’s World Junior Tournament success. At that time, Johnston believed, even with the full cadre of Maple Leafs defensemen, Sandin would join the big club from the Marlies. Furthermore, despite Sandin’s youth and the attendant contractual considerations, the Maple Leafs would value his high skill level and move him to the NHL when he returned to North America after the tournament.

Now, there seems little choice. The team desperately needs Sandin’s talent.

What Are the Contractual Issues Impacting Sandin?

The contract implications if Sandin plays 10 games with the Maple Leafs this season, which currently seems like a lock, are that reaching the 10-game NHL threshold would count as the first year of his entry-level contract. That makes him eligible for restricted free agency a year earlier, following the 2021-22 season.

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However, if he were to finish the season with nine or fewer NHL games, the Maple Leafs could keep Sandin on his entry-level contract for an extra season. Specifically, they would gain an extra season of having him at $894,167. In addition, Sandin’s contract wouldn’t count against the salary cap until next season.

However, given the urgency of the team’s roster situation on defense, those considerations seem a minor issue for general manager Kyle Dubas.

There’s a Lot to Look Forward to With Sandin

So far, Sandin’s play suggests that Maple Leafs fans are in for a treat. There’s a lot to look forward to watching this young star become part of the team’s defense. Last season, Sandin posted 28 points in 44 AHL games. Then, he was simply a Maple Leafs prospect with good potential; this season hockey insiders are beginning to call him a potential difference-maker.

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A first-round selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, this season Sandin scored two goals and 12 points in 18 contests with the Marlies. He also had two assists in the Maple Leafs’ first six games of the season. His two points in Tuesday’s win against the Devils dotted the “i” on his potential.

In October, Sandin played on the Maple Leafs’ third defensive pairing. No longer. If the team’s going to make the playoffs this season, much of that “if” rests on the shoulders of this youngster.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs Recall Rasmus Sandin from AHL

Perhaps Sandin’s development would be better served if he honed his craft in the AHL; however, suddenly the Maple Leafs’ success this season has come to mirror Sandin’s personal success. If the team is to move into the postseason, it seems to me that Sandin has little choice but to become a star.