If Martin Marincin is Big Safety, then Justin Holl is Big Variance.
Admittedly, it probably isn’t all that fair to assign that nickname to a player who hasn’t been on the ice for a single goal scored for or against through two games this season. But in the context of Rasmus Sandin’s game, and the impact his partner has appeared to have across the limited sample at the NHL level, the label does apply.
According to Sandin himself, his best and worst performances through the first four games of the season have come while partnered with Holl on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ third pair. He believes his strongest start was his most recent outing versus the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, with his most forgettable performance being last Friday versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But while Holl was benched for nearly half the game in Columbus, in turn forcing Sandin to cycle through other partners, the sum of those two efforts has apparently exceeded the middle ground that Sandin has achieved while matched with Marincin.
Versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, head coach Mike Babcock will break the rotation he’s implemented through the first week with his depth pieces, meaning that Sandin’s best, worst, and perhaps his remaining games will come alongside Holl.
It’s a considerable vote of confidence for Holl, who to this point in his Leafs career has not been in the coach’s good graces.
For Sandin though, it means far less.
“They both try to keep it simple on the ice and I'm trying to do the same,” Sandin said of his primary defensive partners through four games. “Whether I'm with Marincin or Holl, I'm just trying to play the right way.”
As if the challenge of breaking into a top-six role in the NHL as a teenager wasn’t onerous enough, Sandin hasn’t been given the opportunity to settle into a partnership and build from start to start. Instead, in his first full week in the league, he’s toggled back and forth between the two Maple Leafs defencemen considered least likely to enthuse Babcock when he sends them over the boards.
That’s meant largely sheltered minutes for Sandin, an occasional tap to take a spin with one of the more established defenders in the fleet, and also some long stretches spent planted to the bench.
But mostly, and more importantly, it’s meant stable results.
Sandin has logged essentially the same amount of minutes with Marincin as he has with Holl, and for the most part achieved the same degree of success with each. The possession numbers are stronger with Holl, but the expected-goals rate favours Marincin, who has either made fewer mistakes or just hasn’t been exposed to quite the same extent in terms of scoring-chance quality from the opposition.
What has remained fixed with Sandin no matter who he’s paired with is the delivery of steady, responsible, intelligent, low-event hockey. He attributes those rigid results to the shared styles, strengths and characteristics of the two defenders he has logged the most ice with to this point — suggesting that the adjustments have been minimal — but by doing that he’s minimized his considerable impact on the game.
Still, you have to wonder if the 19-year-old would have made even more progress to this point if he had the opportunity to make headway with a fixed partnership through training camp and the first full week of the season.
While admittedly ideal, it’s not an excuse he’s willing to make — but it’s not like for a second his coach would allow for it.
“I don’t think that had anything to do with his play to be honest with you,” Babcock said Wednesday morning. “He’s getting to play with good players. I just think that for him, the more minutes he plays — no, the more minutes he earns — the better the opportunity it is for him to get comfortable.”
With five games in the next 10 days, the decision on Sandin will be be made soon.
While the steps Travis Dermott is taking in recovery from his shoulder injury must be taken into account, the most significant factor after Sandin’s on-ice performance will be the financial ramifications associated with him staying with the club.
While to this point he has offered tremendous value on his entry-level contract priced at just over $894K, it could potentially carry even more benefit to the franchise if preserved. Toronto could possibly lose three of its current top-four defencemen in free agency this summer with Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci all scheduled for unrestricted free agency.
The need for big contributions from small contracts will only become increasingly dire.
Sandin crosses the halfway mark before the hourglass being permanently tilted on his rookie season with his start versus the Lightning, and as we progress from here, the remaining games will take on more and more meaning.
He still has to prove without a shadow of a doubt that he makes the Leafs considerably better, and it appears he’ll have to do it while playing with a defenceman that has recently failed in that regard.
Big games are on the horizon with Sandin, and it begins with one of the most dominant offensive teams in recent history.
But it’s not like he’s thinking about that.
“It's just one day at a time,” he said. “I don't think about that at all. If it happens, it happens. It is what it is. I'm just trying to be as good as a I can. Practice every day, improve, and I try to make sure I stay with this team.”
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