Heading into Maple Leafs training camp, the assignment of Rasmus Sandin to the Toronto Marlies was all but a foregone conclusion. When it actually happened last week, though, many in Leaf-land were upset by the demotion. But why?
The answer is complicated. To Sandin’s credit, he showed up to training camp looking bigger and stronger than expected, and during camp, he played like someone who had no intentions of looking back. Mike Babcock put it best on opening night. “I tried him in the good games, then I tried him in the bad games,” said the Leafs head coach. “I tried playing him too much, so he’d be exhausted. I tried. I tried everything, it didn’t work, he just played good.”
To earn that respect from a coach who firmly believes in “tiebreaker goes to the veteran”, who had worthwhile veterans available to dress, is no short order. Further to the case of Sandin, he didn’t look bad in his first six NHL games. We saw his trademark puck-carrying ability, his quick decision making, and his willingness to learn from his mistakes.
But at the same time, there were a few looming issues.
One of the obvious ones comes via the reality of a salary cap-driven hockey world – how valuable is that service year? Sandin’s technical status as a European-drafted prospect (facilitated by a loan from Rogle BK to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in his pre-draft years, rather than a full transfer) allowed for him to play with the Marlies last year without burning a contract year, and allows for that once more this year. Given the Leafs’ all-in bet on a top-heavy cap structure, the ability to have Sandin locked in at just $894,167 with no potential bonuses in his age 20, 21, and 22 seasons is an amazing option to have in their back pockets.
On the ice, an equally important factor to consider would be playing time and puck touches, especially if you expect Sandin’s NHL archetype to be one of a player who can control the game with his on-puck play. Sandin had averaged just 12 minutes a night with the Leafs, playing third pair minutes while largely going up against opposing bottom sixes – in other words, opponents who are probably better than top-line AHLers, but not by a significant enough margin to be worth the change in assignment.
It also came with no special teams time, something that Babcock acknowledged this week. “He can’t get on the powerplay in front of the guys we’ve got, and he can’t get on the penalty kill in front of the guys we’ve got”.
On the other hand, though, the Marlies can afford him that higher-quality, and higher-quantity ice time for the sake of his development, and the sake of their own success. Sandin’s impressive Age 18 production last season came in no small part from earning minutes on the top powerplay unit. Last night, in his first game back in the American Hockey League, he was immediately placed back on that top unit and took just ten seconds to get his first point of the year, finding Jeremy Bracco off the draw, who found Yegor Korshkov at the slot for an all-prospect opening goal.
He also found himself immediately placed on the top powerplay unit with fellow Swede and 2017 first-round pick Timothy Liljegren, who was his defensive partner for much of last year’s playoffs and is now his full-time partner on the top pair this season.
“I think we’re both dangerous threats offensively, and at the same time, we’ve developed a lot in the defensive zone,” Sandin said to reporters last night of his partner. “We know each other very well [off] the ice, and I think we bring that chemistry to the ice as well. We have similar types of games as well, so we can read where the other guy is going to go.”
While having that defensive chemistry is great, my biggest delight in a pair like theirs – one that will likely be a long-term relationship that spills into the NHL – lies in the former half of Sandin’s remark. The fact that both have the ability to carry, pass, and shoot the puck means that opponents can’t zero in on the primary puck-toucher while leaving the weaker partner to make low-risk plays.
This sounds like common sense, but as we’ve seen with the big club in the previous 2-3 seasons, it can be the death of teams when they don’t have two options on a pair (especially when all the good options play on the same side, making counter-strategy even easier). I asked Sandin about that element and it was something that he agreed with. “For the other team, I think they’re always going to have their head up to see where both of us are going. I think we’re both a threat.”
Head Coach Sheldon Keefe wasted no time in taking advantage of their skillset, leaning heavily on the two as his top pair last night. Liljegren led the team with approximately 27 minutes of ice time, while Sandin was just a few seconds behind him. By comparison, the Ben Harpur – Jordan Schmaltz pair earned about 18 to 20 minutes of ice time, while Jesper Lindgren and Teemu Kivehalme came in at about 12 to 13 minutes. It was also a lot more time than Sandin saw for much of last season – in the games I had tracked last year, Sandin played about 17 minutes a night in a secondary, though that number began to increase later in the season.
After playing in third pair, lower-risk minutes for the past few weeks, Sandin told me that it was a different getting back into the swing of heavy responsibility. “Obviously, it’s different,” Sandin said. “You have to sit on the bench a little bit more [with the Leafs], trying to be focused the whole time, and when you get your chance you just gotta be ready. Here, you sometimes barely get on the bench and sit down and then it’s your turn again, so you don’t really have the time to lose your focus. So it’s a little bit different, but it’s a big learning experience being up there and not playing as many minutes.”
Overall, Sheldon Keefe was happy with how the pair clicked, and how Sandin looked in his return. “He was good. He was just in control when he was out there,” the Marlies head coach said. “He and Liljegren both, I thought Liljegren had his best game today as well. That was a real nice pairing for us and it felt good when they were out there.”
While the two weren’t dominant on the shot clock (Sandin’s Corsi at Even Strength was -2, while Liljegren was even), that’s a pretty solid result for a top pairing facing top lines while playing most of the game with the lead. Not to mention, each skated away with an assist, and they also had roughly a two-thirds share of the controlled zone entries and exits while they were on the ice, many of which were instigated by the two.
Needless to say, it’s a nice sign of things to come. Both seem to have moved their NHL probabilities to “not if, but when” over the past few months, and until then, they have an opportunity to be the AHL’s most used, most dominant, and yet youngest defensive pairing. It’s an exciting time for a Maple Leafs blue line that will likely need an injection either late in this season or next fall.
Until then, Sandin has a very succinct list of things to work on while he’s down here.
“Everything. I just want to be a better hockey player overall.”
That’s a good mindset to have, and one that fans, coaches, analysts, writers, and even the players themselves can forget about within the moment. After all, while Sandin was productive last year, he wasn’t one of the Marlies’ primary play drivers, and still had holes in his defensive game. A way I described it last season is that he looked very good for a teenage AHLer, but that wasn’t exactly the same as looking very good in general. His growth has come at light speed since, but there is still more for him to do, and he still has plenty to prove to himself, the coaches, and the organization. So long as he knows that, everyone is in good shape, and it seems like he does.
The Rest Of The Game
While Sandin’s return earned the lion’s share of the hype last night, the Marlies also lengthened their start-of-season winning streak to four games last night. The incredibly process-oriented team, however, wasn’t as excited after the game, with both Kenny Agostino and Sheldon Keefe pointing out that this was a game that they could have easily lost (Keefe going as far as saying that the team has really only earned one of their wins – I haven’t gone back to watch the Manitoba games from last weekend yet so I’ll take his word for it).
There were a couple of bright spots, though. Agostino was one of them, with a couple of points and a pass on the Korshkov goal that would make you wish they gave third assists. Adam Brooks looked fantastic, as he did in the home opener – maybe it’s the lack of having Trevor Moore (now a Leaf) and Mason Marchment (injured) to work with, but he’s taken matters into his own hands at 5-on-5 this year and we’re starting to see the confidence levels he carried within himself in Major Junior. Jeremy Bracco looked like a wizard on the powerplay, though he still is leaving a lot to be desired at evens. Kasimir Kaskisuo was excellent again in between the pipes – the final result of 27 saves on 30 shots doesn’t truly reflect how dangerous some of the efforts he turned aside were.
On the other side, I was shocked at how little the Bears used Axel Johnsson-Fjallby last night. The 21-year-old was easily their most visible player last night, and not just because of his eye-catching hair. He picked up two goals in dangerous areas, and controlled nearly 70% of the shot attempts while he was on the ice.
Toronto improves to 4-0-0 with the win, and play again at Coca-Cola Coliseum on Saturday against the Cleveland Monsters.
Enhanced Box Score
Something new that I’m going to try to do this season is to capture the numbers for both teams, building an even bigger sample of American Hockey League statistics than we had last year. I can’t guarantee this for every game (as proven by not having the first three available yet), but when possible, they’ll be included.
These single-game capsules, which reflect a small but key percentage of what I have captured (my single-game spit-outs are roughly 300 columns per player now), will be available to all readers. More detailed, full-season data will only be available to subscribers, with a new Marlies portal coming by the end of the month and a league-wide portal coming shortly thereafter. If you would like to support the many hours that get put into tracking this these games well beyond what the league makes available, please consider signing up for a monthly or annual membership, which also removes advertisements from the site, and gives you the ability to comment on articles, among other small features.