To this point, aside from the Matt Murray deal and Ilya Samsonov signing, the Toronto Maple Leafs have secured depth help in free agency. They’ve added players like Calle Jarnkrok, Jordie Benn and Victor Mete to the fold, while re-upping Pierre Engvall and Timothy Liljegren.
The polarizing move to acquire Murray aside, the moves that’ve drawn the most questions are the signings to bring in Benn and Mete. It’s not because these two particular players can’t offer the Maple Leafs support in depth roles, rather they add more depth to an already overloaded left side defence.
As for the questions that derive from these moves, many outside of the management team are wondering why these moves have been made to bolster the defence when their 22-year-old restricted free agent, Rasmus Sandin, remains unsigned. On top of that, Kyle Dubas mentioned how he prefers Sandin on the left side, the one side the Maple Leafs seem to be overloaded on.
With that in mind, here’s how the Maple Leafs back end breaks down as it stands now.
Maple Leafs’ Are Left Side Strong
Sandin excluded, the Maple Leafs currently have five defensemen that shoot left and play the left side — including Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Mark Giordano, Mete and Benn. They also have T.J. Brodie who shoots left and plays the right side along with Liljegren and Justin Holl who shoot right.
Add to the mix another left-shot defenceman in Sandin and the Maple Leafs would have some decisions to make if they were to re-sign him prior to the season. Clearly, having waited him out and developed organizationally, the goal is to hold onto Sandin. But if he does re-sign and Dubas sees him as a left defenceman, who becomes the odd man out? Who is forced to the right side and how will that work for a full season with the Maple Leafs?
This discussion leads to why the Maple Leafs — and Dubas in particular — might have a tougher time letting go of Holl. After all, if they were to move on from Holl, that would leave them with two holes on the right side.
Still, the team has left little room for Sandin to this point. Assuming both Benn and Mete will platoon or even battle for a spot on the Maple Leafs’ roster, Sandin would likely be among them even though he’s a player the Maple Leafs have been trying to get into their lineup for the past couple of seasons. That said, after how Liljegren and Giordano closed out the regular season in 2021-22 and the confidence that Liljegren seemed to acquire, it would be hard to pull him from the lineup as well heading into the 2022-23 season.
So what exactly did the Maple Leafs land in Mete and Benn?
Maple Leafs Have Options and Experience in Mete, Benn
Experience aside for a moment, Mete and Benn offer the Maple Leafs more options in a position they’ve had holes for a number of years. The 2021-22 season was the first time in a while that the Maple Leafs could argue that they had a solid defence corps after Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin came over just ahead of the deadline.
Now, look at combined experience they offer. Benn is 34 years old and has nearly 600 games of regular season experience. Mete, at 24, has nearly 250 games of regular season experience. However, past that their experience runs a little dry. The two have combined for just 33 games of playoff experience — neither one of them making a true run deep into the playoffs. That said, both offer different types of play for a team that could use it on their back end.
Benn offers the Maple Leafs that grizzly, veteran-type of defenceman. He plays a tough game and can clear the front of the net in his own end. He rarely backs down from a tough battle and can play that gritty type of game that the Maple Leafs are lacking on the blue line. After all, he’s not going to be a major point producer if and when he gets into the lineup for the Maple Leafs, but he can be that stay-at-home guy without being a major liability when it comes to putting them a man short.
As for Mete, he’s a small puck mover that plays with a chip on his shoulder. While he has the ability to add some points, like Benn, he won’t be a top-notch producer for the Maple Leafs which could explain why the team will likely platoon the two to start the year in October.
All of this means one thing — regardless of how full they are on the left side, the Maple Leafs either need to find another right-hand shot defenceman to fill the void on the right side or find a way to get Sandin signed and manage the handedness internally.
Maple Leafs Signing Sandin the Likely Option
As mentioned, the Maple Leafs have been developing Sandin and Liljegren for a number of years. While teams are much quicker to move young players for assets and cap space, are the Maple Leafs really going to give up on Sandin that quickly? That’s the question that needs to be asked.
At just 22 years old, and the promise he’s had to this point in his career, it would be a little premature to let Sandin go. Sure, injuries have hurt his progress over the past couple of seasons, but he still had five goals and 16 points in 51 games last season for the Maple Leafs.
He had a chance to see some power play time in 2021-22 and even played a couple of games on the right side — likely leading to Dubas’ comments about him favouring Sandin on the left side. All of that leads me to believe that the Maple Leafs want him in the lineup. After all, why would you develop a possible power play quarterback just to see him leave at 22?
Now the question becomes how much and for how long. In comparison, Liljegren has 24 points in 74 regular season games. That’s compared to Sandin’s 28 points in 88 games. While Sandin is averaging 0.318 points per game, Liljegren is slightly higher at 0.324 over his short career.
While some have speculated that Sandin should be in the same range, Sandin has held out to this point and is one year away from being arbitration eligible. Still, a $1.4-million AAV would be a nice increase for the young defenceman who carried an AAV of $925,000 last season.
Having said that, Sandin has been with the big club slightly longer than Liljegren which may justify him getting a small bump in his salary. Still, when he does sign — which should be considered inevitable — the question will still be, where does he fit?
Chances are he’ll have the step up on both Benn and Mete, but aside from that it’s a packed left side for the Maple Leafs and Sandin could be in for a battle when training camp opens for the blue and white.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.