Maple Leafs have lots to consider as Sandin’s NHL stock rises

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin. (Chris Young/CP)

DETROIT — The true measure of Rasmus Sandin’s splendid training camp may best be summarized as such: He’s played so well that he’s made his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates forget how old he is.

“Oh wow, is he 19?” said Martin Marincin, his defensive partner. “Wow, that’s good.”

“I was trying to think of when I was a teenager,” said Jake Muzzin. “I was skating all over the place, trying to do 100 things and just wasting energy. He seems to just be calm and do his job and he does it well.”

Now, the only potential fly in the ointment for Sandin is that you can be sure Leafs management hasn’t forgotten his March 7, 2000 birth date or lost sight of how difficult it is for a teenager to handle the rigours of the NHL as a still-developing defenceman.

Based on play alone, there is no decision here. The 29th overall pick from 2018 has been no worse than Toronto’s fifth-best defenceman throughout the pre-season — a point he hammered home while logging an eye-popping 30:35 during Friday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings, the most any Leafs player has played in an exhibition game since 2006.

Even under that strategically applied duress, he didn’t flinch. Sandin cleverly used angles to retrieve pucks and gain an edge on opponents, and even cleared the crease of Givani Smith — who is three inches taller and 26 pounds heavier — when he got digging away at Leafs goaltender Joseph Woll.

“I think he gave a little kick on our goalie and I was just trying to get him away from there,” said Sandin. “I’m a little pissed there. He’s not supposed to touch that.”

What stands out most in his game is how he uses his mind.

There was a point in Friday’s game where he got stuck on the right side of the ice and directed Marincin to leave him there on his off-hand. Talk about confidence. Sandin also didn’t hesitate to jump off the opposing blue line to keep plays alive in the offensive zone and used his five-foot-11, 183-pound frame to force a couple turnovers.

“It’s about getting the puck, right?” he said of his willingness to throw a bodycheck. “It’s not just about hammering people and stuff like that.”

You can understand why the organization is feeling so excited about its brightest young prospect right now. It’s part of the reason Kyle Dubas, Mike Babcock and Co. have kept an ongoing dialogue running about what’s best for Sandin long term while watching him handle every test thrown his way in the moment.

There is no sure answer. No one-size-fits-all development blueprint to consult.

Traditionally, winning organizations tended to allow their young players to over-ripen with extended stints in the AHL. But that trend has shifted in recent years while the NHL has gotten steadily younger and salary-cap considerations have played a larger role in decision-making.

“You try to consider everything, you try to do the right thing for his development, you try to do the right thing for our team to win,” said Babcock.

Morgan Rielly and Luke Schenn are the only teenaged defencemen to see action with the Leafs in the last two decades. It’s looking more and more like Sandin will add his name to that list to start a season where the organization is trying to chart a course for the Stanley Cup.

“We’ve been talking about it now all through camp and it doesn’t appear to me that [his age] seems to be a problem,” said Babcock. “He seems to be ready. We’re going to talk about it on this flight, for sure, and then we’re going to talk about it again on Sunday and then we’ll decide.”

Nothing will be final.

The opening night roster is symbolic, but it’s hardly static.

If Sandin remains with the Leafs into next week, there will be an opportunity to gauge his progress before giving him a 10th game and burning the first year off his entry-level contract. If he passes that hurdle, there will still be roster juggling for the team to do when Travis Dermott is ready to return from his shoulder injury in November.

Heck, Sandin is still eligible to represent Sweden at the world junior tournament. He could be sent there over the holidays. Plus the most significant milestone to monitor is if he spends 40 games on the NHL roster, which will earn him an accrued season.

Alternatively, in the unlikely event he is sent to the AHL Marlies when training camp ends this weekend, he can be recalled by the Leafs at any time.

“I feel like I’m pretty close,” said Sandin, of realizing his NHL dream.

He has made a stronger impression than Marincin, Justin Holl, Kevin Gravel and Ben Harpur these last few weeks. He has also clearly won over his head coach in the process.

“I thought Sandman was really solid — one of the best players in the game for sure,” Babcock said of the heavily AHL-flavoured affair at Little Caesars Arena. “He played real hard, real smart. Just makes good plays. It was a good opportunity for him to be important, too, and he was. He did a good job.”

He’s outperformed his draft position and level of experience. He’s looking to jump to a new league for the fourth consecutive season.

There aren’t too many 19-year-olds patrolling the blue line of quality NHL teams, but the Leafs may decide they have a player beyond his years.

“I don’t know if they just forged his birth certificate or something over in Sweden,” said goalie Michael Hutchinson. “He’s a mature kid and he’s such a smart player. He definitely sees and thinks the game a lot different than most players out there.”

He has the mind of a NHL player and within a couple days he might officially be one, too.

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