Rasmus Sandin is ready to take the next step with the Leafs

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Rasmus Sandin took Leafs Nation by storm after being selected in the 2018 NHL draft, starring on the international stage for Sweden while showing he could be an impact player in the American Hockey League, and even seeing significant NHL action as a teenager. The last year and a half, however, has been difficult for Sandin and he has missed out on precious development time due to the pandemic and a foot injury that kept him on the shelf for over two months once the AHL finally returned to play.

At the outset of the 2020-21 campaign, it appeared as though the young defenseman would be in contention for a role on the Leafs’ third pairing but he was unable to surpass Travis Dermott and prized European free agent signing Mikko Lehtonen on the depth chart coming out of training camp. He got into just a single game, seeing only five minutes of ice time, before the organization decided he would be better served playing heavy minutes with the Marlies as he continued to work towards earning a regular spot in the NHL lineup.

The move made sense given that single outing with the Leafs was the first meaningful hockey Sandin had played in almost a full calendar year, and it was expected that he would be in the running for NHL minutes again in short order. Unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans can go awry and Sandin suffered a broken foot in his first game back with the Marlies.

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Upon his recovery, the Leafs wasted little time getting Sandin into NHL action and he suited up for eight games down the stretch, picking up three assists and topping out at just under 22 minutes of ice time in a 4-1 victory over the Canucks. He showed little rust and displayed all the attributes that have Leafs fans and management alike so high on his potential as an NHL defenseman, even earning the trust of Sheldon Keefe to take over for Morgan Rielly in an attempt to spark a struggling Leafs powerplay.

That role on the powerplay led to him taking Travis Dermott’s spot on the third pair alongside Zach Bogosian when the Leafs began their first-round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens and the lineup change paid early dividends for Keefe with Sandin scoring a big powerplay goal in a convincing game two victory.

But the good times didn’t last and game five proved to be a stark reminder that even the most promising young players can be prone to mistakes as Sandin committed a pair of ugly turnovers that ended up in the back of the Leafs net – arguably the turning point in the series. The budding blue-liner was stapled to the bench for the remainder of the game, finishing with just over six minutes of ice time as the Leafs fell in overtime to begin their latest playoff collapse. An injury to Jake Muzzin saw Sandin back in the lineup for game seven but he was as ineffective as the rest of the Leafs were as they watched another season slip away.

It is easy to get hung up on the glaring mistakes but setting aside his worst moments, Sandin showed that he is already a capable NHL defenseman and there is still plenty of room for him to grow as he continues to develop at the top level. He played sparingly this past season but he performed well at even strength, driving offense for his team while limiting chances for the opposition.

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There wasn’t much of a sample size to go on, especially with his powerplay metrics, but I don’t think they are an accurate representation of what he did with the man advantage. The unit still struggled to produce but his heavy shot added another weapon that simply wasn’t there with Morgan Rielly, and though he isn’t the same caliber of skater as Rielly, his agility allowed him to control the blue line while creating lanes to effectively distribute the puck from the point.

Sandin is an interesting player in that he doesn’t have great size, but his physical game is probably better than his skating. He is fairly mobile but he lacks the top gear to recover when he gets in trouble and that will be an area of focus for him this offseason.

Perhaps Sandin’s biggest issue in his limited time with the Leafs this season was how he struggled to adjust to the pace of play and make quicker decisions with the puck on his stick.

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Everyone remembers that one, and the one just before it that also led to a goal against, but these were not isolated incidents for Sandin. There is no doubt he has the ability to improve in this area because of his elusiveness, puck skills, and hockey brain but he will have to speed up his decision making to avoid plays like this as he moves up Toronto’s depth chart:

The Leafs’ insistence on putting Sandin into a prominent role to begin the playoffs, especially after how little he had played over the last year, bodes well for his chances of earning a spot out of camp next fall. He is likely ticketed for third pairing duty to begin the season but this could be a summer that includes some big changes for the Leafs, perhaps creating a path for Sandin to take on a larger role in 2021-22.

All indications point to the Leafs’ brass running back the core four next season and if significant changes are to be made, there is a chance that Morgan Rielly – the longest serving Leaf on the current roster – could find himself as the odd man out in a trade. Kyle Dubas will be hesitant to move such an important piece of his team but a decision is coming on Rielly one way or the other as he enters the final year of his contract in 2021-22. Rielly isn’t old by any means, but he also isn’t young anymore, and will likely command a hefty price tag on his next deal while Sandin appears to be a natural, in-house replacement for the offensive minded defender.

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Regardless of where he is in the lineup to begin next season, it is clear that Sandin is being groomed for a larger role in the coming years. His dynamic offensive skillset and sound defensive game are evident, and though he still has areas of his game that require improvement, it is time for that development to take place on the Leafs’ blue line.

 

(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)