The Toronto Maple Leafs avoided the dreaded winless pre-season, defeating the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 behind a combined shutout from Frederik Andersen and Michael Hutchinson.
Here’s one key point from the win:
Point 1: Sandin has to be more than a stand-in
Now more than a full week into training camp, inexperienced, incomplete and, in some cases, likely incapable players remain in the mix and in a battle for open roster spots with the Maple Leafs.
The extent to which the club is staging open competition for jobs is somewhat of a rarity in today’s NHL. Due to a rash of injuries and the top-heaviness of the team’s salary structure, there could be as many as eight rosters spot for entry-level players, camp invites, and veterans to scrap it out for with less than two weeks before the puck drops on the season.
So it goes without saying that talent evaluation is the most important thing happening behind the closed doors and inside hockey operations with the Leafs. And the merits of those involved in these races has dominated this discourse online.
Naturally, the strengths and weaknesses of players making low-end NHL salaries has been the source of much disagreement — seemingly with the exception of one player.
It seems like everyone is seeing the same Rasmus Sandin.
With another strong performance on Friday night while paired mostly with Martin Marincin, the undersized 19-year-old first-round selection from two summers ago continued to strengthen his case for the Maple Leafs roster.
If not clearly one of the six best defencemen in camp regardless, to this point he has shown that he is the best option to stand-in on the left side and the bottom pair for the injured Travis Dermott.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock didn’t say as much, but acknowledged that Sandin belongs. Pretty much anywhere.
“I think he’s like that every night,” Babcock said. “To me, he’s just smart and simple. He knows how to play and he just seems comfortable all the time.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what level he’s at.”
Sandin might be best described as unbothered. He skates smoothly, effectively breaks down play despite his size and reads the play incredibly well — all of which was apparent in the third period when he stymied a transition opportunity for Buffalo and sent Matt Read in the opposite direction for Toronto’s 3-0 goal.
From a strict hockey standpoint, Sandin stands out as the obvious choice to fill in for Dermott, who is expected to miss at least the first 12 games to finish healing his surgically-repaired shoulder.
Unfortunately it’s not that easy.
Because simply standing in for Dermott would carry Sandin through the 10-game threshold and therefore burn the first season of his entry-level deal, the Swedish defender might have to prove himself on the right side in order to earn a position on the opening-night roster.
That’s because one of the major points of emphasis for the Maple Leafs in camp has been consistency with lines and pairings. To send Sandin in for nine games, only to force him back down before Dermott is even healthy enough to replace him, would belie all the team’s efforts to build continuity throughout training camp.
While in all likelihood Sandin makes them better this season, managing his career is of utmost importance to the Maple Leafs.
The franchise will go without first-round picks in consecutive seasons after dealing their 2020 selection to the Carolina Hurricanes in order to shed Patrick Marleau, and it doesn’t seem certain now that previous first-rounder Timothy Liljegren is on a similar career trajectory.
Having players perform on entry-level and bargain-rate salaries is a must for the Maple Leafs this season. However, preserving Sandin’s rookie contract might be even more important with Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin potentially being priced out next summer.
For that reason, players that just lack the effortlessness to which Sandin plays the game may wind up making the roster ahead of him.
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