Another offseason, another young Leafs restricted free agent that will seemingly go into the preseason without a contract. Rasmus Sandin, Toronto’s first-round pick back in 2018, still hasn’t reached an agreement with the Leafs for his first contract after his entry-level deal. Sandin has been a prospect that most Leaf fans had high hopes for since his strong rookie season in the AHL, where he put up 28 points in 44 games. The following season, the 22-year-old impressed when he made the team out of camp in 2019-2020. However, his NHL stay was short-lived after he struggled to find his feet under Mike Babcock. His 2020-21 season was marred by injuries, and it was difficult for him to get in the lineup when he was healthy due to the number of left defencemen the Leafs had. This brings us to last season, Sandin’s final chance to show the front office that he was ready to be a vital part of the team’s top four for the foreseeable future. So, how did his season go?
Sandin spent a large portion of last season playing with either Timothy Liljgren or Travis Dermott. Looking solely at the numbers, Sandin was highly successful with both players as partners. Per Moneypuck, amongst all NHL defence pairings that played at least 200 minutes together last season, both Sandin-Liljgren and Sandin-Dermott ranked inside the top three in terms of on-ice expected goals for percentage. Furthermore, when Sandin was on the ice at even-strength with either of his partners, the Leafs controlled the xG at a rate of 65%. Admittedly, both pairings barely cleared that 200-minute qualifier, but that is a large enough sample size to show that when Sandin was on the ice, the Leafs were usually controlling play.
When Sandin was on the ice at five on five, the Leafs generated 58% of the scoring chances, expected goals and high danger scoring chances. That is a three percent increase on the Leafs’ team performance, which sat at around 55% for all three stats last season. These stats deserve context; Sandin was usually on the ice for offensive zone faceoffs and did not play much against other teams’ top players, but that is not up to him. The most important thing is that when he is on the ice, the Leafs control play and get a good chunk of scoring chances. Looking at his play in a vacuum, Sandin continued to show that he is a smooth skater with a high sense of offensive awareness and a natural ability to produce as an offensive defenseman. His passing and vision are two of his strongest traits, and on a Leaf team with an abundance of skill, he fits in very well. He did get exposed at times due to his speed while skating backwards and poor body positioning in front of the net, but growing pains in the defensive end are bound to happen for a 22-year-old defenseman.
Now, the question remains, what are the Leafs’ doing with Rasmus Sandin? A young, intelligent, modern-style defenseman that just put up a solid season in his first full year as an NHLer doesn’t have a contract a month out from the season start. This is partly on Sandin himself. As Elliott Friedman spoke about on the 32 Thoughts podcast, Sandin was given an offer and said no.
For a team in a cap crunch, it would’ve been excellent for Toronto to get both of their young defensemen on cheap deals with a little bit of term, but Sandin wants more money and more term. It’s not unfair for Sandin to want a contract more along the lines of 3 x $2.5M, but for the Leafs, a team that is already logjammed at left defence, they can’t justify that right now. I’d rather see Sandin on the ice over Jake Muzzin or Mark Giordano. Still, Muzzin makes over $5M a year and the Leafs value Giordano’s experience, so Sandin will have to either wait for a trade (Justin Holl) or really impress in training camp/preseason. The problem is he doesn’t have a contract, and as of September 17th, he won’t be attending training camp. If I were Sandin, I would bet on myself, sign a one-year deal with a fair AAV of around $2M and cash in next year after proving your worth. Does he deserve some blame in this saga? For sure, but at the same time, I don’t blame him for wanting some stability and a guarantee that he’ll be getting playing time.
The Leafs, on the other hand, have misplayed their cards once again with a restricted free agent. In 2018, they wasted two months of William Nylander’s season over a few hundred K, and he never fully recovered to play to the best of his ability. In 2019, they let Mitch Marner hold themselves over a barrel to get $11M a year at a time in which that contract was clearly not deserved. Now they have failed to act again and ostracized a former first-round pick and potential pillar of their defence for years to come.
It seems like they are waiting for another team to come in and make their decision for them over Sandin. Whether that be an offer sheet or a trade offer that blows them away, letting Sandin walk would be a horrendous blemish on Dubas’ resume. Sandin may never turn out to be more than what he is now, a third-pairing defenceman with offensive upside and second-unit power-play ability. However, Sandin’s potential is seemingly sky-high, and the Leafs’ left side has two old and fragile players (Muzzin and Giordano). Of course, you need to set a limit at some point. The Leafs’ aren’t going to allow a guy who has played 88 NHL regular season games to take them to the cleaners. But, is it worth it to halt Sandin’s progress over a year of term or a quarter of a million dollars per year? I don’t think so.
A former Leaf prospect, Sean Durzi, just re-signed with the Kings for two years at $1.7M AAV, and many Leaf fans are using this as a comparable to Sandin. Many are also implying that Sandin hasn’t impressed as much as Durzi. Durzi is a fine young defenceman and looks good value for money on that deal, but the idea that Sandin is not as good as Durzi or doesn’t deserve something similar just isn’t accurate.
This graph is not supposed to prove Sandin is better than Durzi, but it does give us an idea of just how good Sandin is.
Much of this contract saga boils down to Leaf media and fans making mountains out of molehills, and Sandin could sign a contract tomorrow. However, the discourse around Sandin has bugged me, and I wanted to express my opinion on the situation. Sandin shouldn’t be criticized for wanting what he thinks he deserves in a league that is increasingly becoming a player-driven league similar to the NBA. The Leafs need to do what they feel is suitable for their team, but it would be undeniably silly to let Rasmus Sandin fall through the cracks when capable young defensemen are what every NHL team loves to have. Here is hoping Sandin is signed in time for training camp and has a proper breakout campaign this season because the Leafs could use it.
All stats and graphs courtesy of natural-stat trick.com, moneypuck.com and Evolving-Hockey.com