I know it’s a bit early to give young Rasmus Sandin a full-time job running the Toronto Maple Leafs’ power-play unit. However, both his burgeoning skills and the needs the team is facing make his growth into a starting role almost a necessity if the team is going to do well after this next season. Everything points to him becoming the heir apparent for this Maple Leafs’ defense going forward.
And this is a crucial season for him to begin to emerge as a leader within this Maple Leafs’ core. He’ll certainly be a central figure as this Maple Leafs’ defense moves into the future.
So far, and with no surprise, Sandin has had an up-and-down NHL career. He’s young and inexperienced. He’s only played 37 NHL games and in those games scored only a single goal and 11 assists. But there’s a group of long-time Maple Leafs fans who believe Sandin is further ahead of Morgan Rielly at the early stage of their careers.
Sandin has done his part to support that ideas by putting together a nice stretch of outstanding games. There have been mistakes, of course; however, these are mistakes that can only be blamed on inexperience. That said, in his small “N” of NHL games played, he’s made Maple Leafs’ fans stand up and take notice.
Like It or Not, Sandin Might Have to Lead the Maple Leafs’ Defense
All the above spells the possibility. But then there’s the reality, too. The truth is that the Maple Leafs might be in trouble if Sandin doesn’t become a team leader. Furthermore, the other truth is that he must take a big step towards that goal this season. That’s because, like it or not, Maple Leafs’ fans have to get their head around the fact that their team might lose Rielly.
I have no doubt that Rielly wants to stay with the Maple Leafs, but things are lining up against that possibility. The key issue is salary. Rielly needs a new contract after this season, and given the high salaries other good defensemen are signing these days, there’s no way Rielly could probably be signed for less than $7.5 million (and that’s with a home-town discount). It seems beyond the Maple Leafs’ capabilities to find those salary-cap funds.
Honestly, I’ll be sorry to see Rielly leave. However, I also think the skills Sandin embodies make me less worried about the fate of the team in the long run. When Sandin’s on his game, he’s impressive. He looks every inch to be a solid blue-liner.
Sandin Played Some Strong Games Last Season
Last season, Sandin had his moments. One memorable moment stood out from a game against the Winnipeg Jets, when Sandin puffed up way past his size to deliver a hard, clean hit on the Jets’ Blake Wheeler. What’s interesting is that Sandin surprised the much larger player (who’s six inches taller and more than 40 pounds heavier) by turning the tables on the Jet’s star. Wheeler had lined Sandin up, but at the last minute Sandin reversed gears and moved into Wheeler. Suddenly, the force was moving the other way.
Wheeler went down, got up slowly, and skated off the ice. At least for that one moment, Sandin had taken and given a hit and had come out on top. We don’t expect to see physical play from him regularly, but it doesn’t hurt to serve notice that you can both hit and be hit. That’s a learning moment for the youngster. No doubt this will be a season of other learning moments, as the young defenseman hones his game by playing more minutes.
2021-22 Has to Be a Different Season for Sandin
Maple Leafs’ fans will get a chance to see lots of Sandin on the ice this season. From my perspective, I wish it would have happened sooner. But I also understand why circumstances, opportunities, and player development all combined to make Sandin wait longer in the wings for a regular spot on his team’s defense.
For example, I understand the reasoning behind last season’s signing of veteran defenseman Zach Bogosian. General manager Kyle Dubas needed to solidfy the team’s defense and Bogosian had the size, grit, and experience to do so. In truth, it was the team’s best defense in several seasons. Still, one problem with Dubas’ moves was that, although they were needed to improve the team in the short-term, they probably set back Sandin’s development.
That likely won’t be the case this season. Sandin will have his chance to play lots.
Maple Leafs’ Head Coach Sheldon Keefe Has Faith in Sandin
Last season, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe noted his faith in Sandin. When speaking about Sandin’s ability on the power play, he noted that “The power play is a big part of his game. He’s got great confidence there. I’ve seen him from a very young age at the American League level take over a power play. We knew when we had him in the line-up we wanted to introduce him to the power play and give him an opportunity.”
Keefe then added about Sandin’s even-strength play, “The way he moves the puck with his confidence that he has at 5-on-5 really helps us. He doesn’t get rattled by much at all. He’s a competitive guy. He’s getting better and better every game, and that’s really what you want to see with a young player.”
Sandin Was One of the Maple Leafs’ Most Surprising Players of the 2020-21 Season
Fans have to hope the team doesn’t miss a beat with Sandin in the lineup. Last season’s body of work suggests that, if Sandin keeps playing the way he currently has been, he’ll add skill, puck movement, and (sometimes) physicality to the defense.
Obviously, that was part of the Maple Leafs’ expectation when they drafted him during the first-round (29th overall) of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. If ever there was a time for that choice to prove correct, it’s this season.
The team needs him to step up. He really must be ready for prime time.
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