DETROIT — The true measure of Rasmus Sandin’s splendid training camp may best be summarized as such: He’s played so well that he’s made his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates forget how old he is.
“Oh wow, is he 19?” said Martin Marincin, his defensive partner. “Wow, that’s good.”
“I was trying to think of when I was a teenager,” said Jake Muzzin. “I was skating all over the place, trying to do 100 things and just wasting energy. He seems to just be calm and do his job and he does it well.”
Now, the only potential fly in the ointment for Sandin is that you can be sure Leafs management hasn’t forgotten his March 7, 2000 birth date or lost sight of how difficult it is for a teenager to handle the rigours of the NHL as a still-developing defenceman.
Based on play alone, there is no decision here. The 29th overall pick from 2018 has been no worse than Toronto’s fifth-best defenceman throughout the pre-season — a point he hammered home while logging a ridiculous 30:54 during Friday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Even under that strategically applied duress, he didn’t flinch. Sandin cleverly used angles to retrieve pucks and gain an edge on opponents, and even cleared the crease of Givani Smith — who is three inches taller and 26 pounds heavier — when he got digging away at Leafs goaltender Joseph Woll.
“I think he gave a little kick on our goalie and I was just trying to get him away from there,” said Sandin. “I’m a little pissed there. He’s not supposed to touch that.”
What stands out most in his game is how he uses his mind.
There was a point in Friday’s game where he got stuck on the right side of the ice and directed Marincin to leave him there on his off-hand. Talk about confidence. Sandin also didn’t hesitate to jump off the opposing blue line to keep plays alive in the offensive zone and used his five-foot-11, 183-pound frame to force a couple turnovers.
“It’s about getting the puck, right?” he said of his willingness to throw a bodycheck. “It’s not just about hammering people and stuff like that.”
You can understand why the organization is feeling so excited about its brightest young prospect right now. It’s part of the reason Kyle Dubas, Mike Babcock and Co. have kept an ongoing dialogue running about what’s best for Sandin long term while watching him handle every test thrown his way in the moment.
There is no sure answer. No one-size-fits-all development blueprint to consult.
Traditionally, winning organizations tended to allow their young players to over-ripen with extended stints in the AHL. But that trend has shifted in recent years while the NHL has gotten steadily younger and salary-cap considerations have played a larger role in decision-making.
“You try to consider everything, you try to do the right thing for his development, you try to do the right thing for our team to win,” said Babcock.
Morgan Rielly and Luke Schenn are the only teenaged defencemen to see action with the Leafs in the last two decades. It’s looking more and more like Sandin will add his name to that list to start a season where the organization is trying to chart a course for the Stanley Cup.
“We’ve been talking about it now all through camp and it doesn’t appear to me that [his age] seems to be a problem,” said Babcock. “He seems to be ready. We’re going to talk about it on this flight, for sure, and then we’re going to talk about it again on Sunday and then we’ll decide.”
Nothing will be final.
The opening night roster is symbolic, but it’s hardly static.
If Sandin remains with the Leafs into next week, there will be an opportunity to gauge his progress before giving him a 10th game and burning the first year off his entry-level contract. If he passes that hurdle, there will still be roster juggling for the team to do when Travis Dermott is ready to return from his shoulder injury in November.
Heck, Sandin is still eligible to represent Sweden at the world junior tournament. He could be sent there over the holidays. Plus the most significant milestone to monitor is if he spends 40 games on the NHL roster, which will earn him an accrued season.
The Biggest surprise of this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs training camp is Rasmus Sandin.
It’s not that he’s a virtual lock to make the Toronto Maple Leafs that is so surprising – we called it in the summer, afterall – it’s how good he’s been.
Sandin hasn’t just made the team, he’s forced his way onto it.
It’s one thing to send a player back to the AHL even though he’s already succeeded, but when he’s dominating games against NHL players, and has already been a near point per game playoff performer in the minors, it gets increasingly difficult.
Add in the fact that he’s on a near-league minimum entry-level contract, and this is a great situation for the cap strapped Leafs.
Toronto Maple Leafs and Rasmus Sandin
Drafted 29th overall just two years ago, Sandin has exploded since his draft year.
He was among the best defenseman in the AHL last season, even though he was only allowed to play their because of a quirky rule that allows European players under 20 to play but bans their North American equivalents.
Sandin was among the best defenseman all season, then in the playoffs he scored 10 points in 13 games. A forward who scores a point-per-game in the AHL stands a good chance of NHL success.
A defenseman coming close to that goal in the playoffs projects as a star player.
So far in three pre-season games, Sandin has an other-worldly 65% possession rating. By far the best on the team – when Sandin has hit the ice, the Leafs have 52 shot attempts for vs 28 against.
They’re also gettng 65% of the shots and 75% of the goals. Sandin’s expected-goals, which more accurately reflect future performance than anything else, are at 61%. Keep in mind this is just from three pre-season games, so the sample size is small and it could all be a mirage, but it’s never the less impressive. (all stats from naturalstattrick.com).
In the last game he played, when Sandin was on the ice, the Leafs put 18 shot attempts on net while allowing just 2. That is COMPLETE DOMINATION.
Oh, and he can play the right-side comfortably, despite being a lefty.
While of course there is always the chance that Sandin plays nine games and gets sent to the AHL, to avoid having his contract start, it’s unlikely that will happen if he is good enough to play.
If Sandin can be replaced with say Jordan Schmaltz with no real loss to the Leafs, then he maybe they send him down. But if he’s as good as he has been, once those nine games are up, there’s no chance.
Not only could the Leafs blue line use the bump, but they are playing to win now. Additionally, there could be a lot of turnover next year, and it would be beneficial to have at least one of the young players who will be asked to fill in for the departing Muzzin and Barrie to have some experience.
Additionally, if Sandin is as good as he has show, when Travis Dermott returns, the Toronto Maple Leafs worst defenseman will be Cody Ceci, and he makes $4.5 million on a capped out team.
Being able to move Ceci would allow the Leafs an easy solution to fitting Dermott and Hyman back into the lineup.
Either way, Rasmus Sandin making the team has to be the best story in training camp.
Alternatively, in the unlikely event he is sent to the AHL Marlies when training camp ends this weekend, he can be recalled by the Leafs at any time.
“I feel like I’m pretty close,” said Sandin, of realizing his NHL dream.
He has made a stronger impression than Marincin, Justin Holl, Kevin Gravel and Ben Harpur these last few weeks. He has also clearly won over his head coach in the process.
“I thought Sandman was really solid — one of the best players in the game for sure,” Babcock said of the heavily AHL-flavoured affair at Little Caesars Arena. “He played real hard, real smart. Just makes good plays. It was a good opportunity for him to be important, too, and he was. He did a good job.”
He’s outperformed his draft position and level of experience. He’s looking to jump to a new league for the fourth consecutive season.
There aren’t too many 19-year-olds patrolling the blue line of quality NHL teams, but the Leafs may decide they have a player beyond his years.
“I don’t know if they just forged his birth certificate or something over in Sweden,” said goalie Michael Hutchinson. “He’s a mature kid and he’s such a smart player. He definitely sees and thinks the game a lot different than most players out there.”
He has the mind of a NHL player and within a couple days he might officially be one, too.