The Toronto Maple Leafs announced on Thanksgiving Monday that 19-year-old camp standout Rasmus Sandin will be returning to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies after six games in the NHL.
Coming up as an extra body — at least for now, with Martin Marincin likely drawing in for the Minnesota game — is big left-handed defenseman Kevin Gravel. Gravel played a simple but reasonably steady game in preseason and has killed penalties in the NHL before, including last year in Edmonton. With a back-to-back coming up this week, Gravel may enter the lineup for one of the two games vs. the Wild or Capitals.
Possibly noteworthy as well: Gravel has dropped the gloves a handful of times in the league and is a large body; Babcock mentioned today that he didn’t care much for Sandin taking a high hit from Justin Abdelkader in Saturday’s game.
The decision-making process here is multi-faceted but pretty easy to understand at the same time. The following factors are at play:
- First and foremost, ice time. Sandin was playing just 12:13 per game. That’s at the low, low end of “bottom pairing” minutes. It’s hard to truly gain real confidence at any level playing that little as a defenseman with no time on the power play or special teams to speak of. Sandin clearly has the ability to run a power play effectively and has notable offensive upside between his intelligence, mobility, puck-moving ability, and knack for getting pucks through. But he wasn’t going to continue to develop those areas of his game as effectively in 11-13 even-strength minutes with the Leafs.
- The entry-level slide — Just three more games played at the NHL level and Sandin would’ve burned a year of his three-year entry-level deal. The extended cost certainty on Sandin’s sub $900k cap hit until 2024 (vs. 2023) is not insignificant for a team in the Leafs’ cap situation. It’s not impossible that Sandin could return at some point and surpass the nine-game threshold, but with Travis Dermott returning soon and a taxi squad (comprised of Gravel, Martin Marincin and Justin Holl) available, it likely isn’t worth it at this time to play Sandin in three more 12-minute-per-night games. That calculation may change at some point during the year should injuries or other circumstances crop up.
- A few learning moments on the ice — he was on the ice for a couple of goals against vs. Detroit and could’ve been firmer on his man in front on the first goal. He took a hard hit to the face from Justin Abdelkader in the game as well. He’s had a few rough games on the road — including in Columbus — when Babcock hasn’t been able to tightly manage his matchup situations. Overall, Sandin has by no means struggled — his underlying numbers are quite good (57% CF), albeit in a sheltered role — but he’s not made it unthinkable for the Leafs to make this move.
- The revolving partners — Babcock dismissed this factor recently in the media, but for a rookie learning the league, the revolving door on his right side is not ideal. This wasn’t just a game-to-game uncertainty but a shift-to-shift one — Sandin had Ceci and Barrie regularly rotating through his right side as Babcock has continued to keep a tight leash on Justin Holl, in particular.
- Travis Dermott’s impending return — He can’t return until the 10-game mark due to LTIR rules, but he’s only a few games away at this point. Between Martin Marincin, the recently-recalled Gravel, and Justin Holl, the Leafs can stop-gap their bottom pairing in the meantime.
Sandin can take the confidence from a number of good NHL showings into the AHL, where he’ll look to pick up where he left off playing 25+ all situations minutes and a top-pairing role at 5v5. Sandin will also be eligible to represent Team Sweden at the World Junior championships again this winter.