Maple Leafs not eager to sacrifice Rasmus Sandin's development for immediate gain

Rasmus Sandin will return to the Toronto Marlies after a short sting with the Maple Leafs. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
Rasmus Sandin will return to the Toronto Marlies after a short sting with the Maple Leafs. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs will not burn the first season on Rasmus Sandin’s entry-level contract — at least not within the week.

Sandin was sent down the road Monday morning to the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies, with veteran defender Kevin Gravel being recalled to replace the teenage defenseman on the Leafs’ active roster.

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For those hoping the Maple Leafs will ice their very best roster at all costs this season, losing Sandin certainly hurts. Though he’s been largely unspectacular, he’s been remarkably steady, and stands out as one of the few Maple Leafs defensemen that has delivered on their obligations through six games this season.

That has a lot to do with the sheltered nature of Sandin’s minutes, of course. Against mostly lesser competition from the opposition, Sandin has logged no more than 14 minutes through six games. And with no responsibilities on either side of the special teams equation, situational factors have seen him fail to hit even 10 minutes on two occasions.

If Sandin’s ceiling was to remain fixed in this depth and support role, forever tasked with helping the Maple Leafs earn an advantage at the margins, the teenage defender wouldn’t be in the position he’s in.

But the Maple Leafs have bigger plans for Sandin — just not for right now.

Developing into a legitimate top-four defenseman normally requires playing big, all-situations minutes at a highly-competitive level. Right now that opportunity exists with the Marlies — not the Maple Leafs.

Yet, with Toronto’s top four defenders bumbling through the first two weeks of the season, it did seem worth asking the question if Sandin’s intelligent, low-event style could be useful in a larger role — at least while the Leafs still had the chance to deploy him risk-free.

Replacing Cody Ceci — the most obvious of defensive culprits to this point — on the top pair with ace Morgan Rielly presented itself as an opportunity worth pursuing. A shadow of his former self to this point in the year, Rielly’s best, Norris-nomination-calibre seasons came alongside veteran Ron Hainsey, whose best attributes through his time in Toronto were reliable puck support and positioning. These are things Sandin has already proven to be adept with.

But his opportunity to make a mark higher in the lineup alongside Tyson Barrie in Saturday’s win over the Detroit Red Wings was fleeting. Sandin logged more than four five-on-five minutes with Barrie, or just three seconds less than he had on the third pair with Justin Holl. They were ultimately inconsequential minutes, but Sandin and Barrie contributed in the Leafs controlling 85 percent of the shot attempts in those shifts.

While to a lesser degree, that positive possession impact shown with Barrie is what we should probably come to expect with Sandin. He doesn’t give up all that much in his own end because he pursues the puck so well in all areas of the ice, and he moves it out of the defensive zone so efficiently.

The only thing that might be missing from his game, and keeping him from being able to fulfill a top-four function, is his ability to deal with pressure when the Leafs are caught back.

Instances where Sandin has been out-muscled or boxed out or momentarily lost in his defensive zone coverage have been a little more routine over the last few games. And it did finally hurt the Leafs on Saturday when he was on the ice for both Red Wings goals.

Sandin just loses a battle with Jacob De La Rose on the first goal, allowing the Red Wings forward position in front to tip the point shot into Frederik Andersen before using that position to whack in the rebound.

Being big-brothered by De La Rose, having to pull the puck out of his own net for the first time, Toronto becoming more and more permeable with Sandin on the ice, Travis Dermott practicing regularly with the team. Though factors, these are secondary to the larger focus, which is to have Sandin’s development continue on a straight line.

You have to wonder, though, when it’s essential that the Leafs do ice their best roster, and after Sandin has had another season logging major minutes with the Marlies, if his fit in the top six is re-visited.

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