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Cullen: Rasmus Sandin looking good early, could push for bigger role




Although the Toronto Maple Leafs have played just four games this season, and some smart guy is asking questions about possible lineup changes, there are some encouraging early performances, too. Defenceman Rasmus Sandin, for one, has been excellent in a limited role.

While the Maple Leafs lost their last game, 2-1 to the New York Rangers in overtime on Monday, they have a 2-1-1 record through the first four games of the season. The sky is not anywhere close to falling.

“I’ve got no issue, any of our guys, with how we have played through four games,” said Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe after practice Tuesday.

So let’s turn to one of the more impressive performers early in the season and it is 21-year-old defenceman Rasmus Sandin.

The 29th pick in the 2018 Draft, Sandin played 28 games in the 2019-2020 season, so he no longer qualifies as a rookie but came into this season having played 37 regular-season NHL games plus five games in last year’s playoff series against Montreal. Not a rookie but not really a veteran either.

Early optimism around Sandin’s performance this season is based on a very small sample since the Leafs have played just four games. At the same time, his numbers are encouraging and those numbers back up how he has been able to stand out even when he is not logging big minutes on the blueline. Sandin is averaging 15:36 of ice time per game.

The Numbers

There are 137 defencemen across the league that have played at least 40 5-on-5 minutes this season. From that group Sandin ranks first with 65.1 CF% and third with 72.6 xGF%, behind Minnesota’s Matt Dumba and Pittsburgh’s Chad Ruhwedel.

Controlling more than 65% of shot attempts is dominant play and an unsustainably high percentage. Last season’s leaders in Corsi and Expected Goals Percentage among NHL regulars on defence were a pair of Colorado Avalanche defencemen: Cale Makar (60.9 CF%) and Devon Toews (63.1 xGF%), respectively.

Furthermore, Sandin ranks fifth among those defencemen in individual shot attempts per 60 during 5-on-5 play. He has not been shy about attacking offensively, coming down off the blueline in the offensive zone or joining the rush in progress.

“You have to read the play,” Sandin said earlier this week. “Sometimes it is a good time to join (the rush) and sometimes it’s not. Just trying to pick the right time to do it.”

The point is not that Sandin is going to maintain historically great possession numbers but more that he has been thriving in his third pairing role early in this season. Just like someone who scores two goals in the first game is not expected to score 164 goals in a full season, Sandin’s shot differentials should come down with more playing time, but this is still a positive sign.

Past Performance

In 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, Rasmus Sandin played a total of 37 games. Among the 254 defencemen that logged at least 400 5-on-5 minutes combined in those two seasons, he ranked 22nd with a 53.9 CF%, though his 49.9 xGF% was, as you might expect, closer to the middle of the pack, ranking 123rd. Those results are entirely reasonable for a young defenceman getting his first taste of NHL action. What is more important is that he continue to develop because thriving in a third pair role might be fine for now but that is not the long-term plan for Sandin, either.

He has already seen some time on the Maple Leafs power play and that could be a significant part of his role in the future.

The Future

One of the reasons that Sandin’s development this season is so important for the Maple Leafs is that Morgan Rielly is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. If the Leafs can not keep Rielly, they are going to need a left shot defenceman to fill that void on the depth chart and Sandin could be the guy to shoulder more responsibility. At the very least, he does provide some insurance as puck-moving left-shot defenceman.

For his part, Sandin will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. He is in the final year of his entry-level contract, which pays him $894,167 this season, and he will be looking at a raise on his new deal. Even so, he could be a cost-effective replacement if Rielly leaves.

All of that is well into the future but it ought to provide some hope for Maple Leafs fans that they can look to a future and envision Rasmus Sandin playing a significant role for this team because his work in a supporting role very early this season has been outstanding.

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