TORONTO — In one of the final shifts of Rasmus Sandin’s first stint as a NHL player, the 19-year-old defenceman raced down from the point to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone.
His reward for that particular act of guile and bravery? Taking a hit directly to the face from Detroit Red Wings veteran Justin Abdelkader — an opponent three inches taller, 30 pounds heavier and 13 years older.
Consider it an “ah-ha” moment for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sandin is arguably the most important prospect in the organization and was left bloodied by the Abdelkader hit in a game Toronto won comfortably while only using him for 12 minutes.
In an instant, the Sandin situation began testing the law of diminishing returns.
“I didn’t like it last game when he got hit in the head. I didn’t have much appreciation for that, to be honest with you,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “But I also say to myself: What am I doing? You want [him] to be ready for everything and I think that’s a big part of managing your assets.
“You’ve got to look after them the best way you can and sometimes you’ve got to be a prudent parent.”
That’s why the 2018 first-round pick found himself heading back to the American Hockey League on Thanksgiving Monday, with no guarantee of a return before next season.
It was the sensible thing to do.
Sandin averaged 12:13 across his first six NHL games, with absolutely no power-play time and very limited use on the penalty kill, and he wasn’t likely to see that change any time soon. Baked into all the promise the coach could see when he smoothly executed a controlled zone exit or jumped forward to halt a rushing opponent was a fear that his development might stall during the long stretches of inactivity a third-pairing defenceman often endures.
The question wasn’t so much is Sandin ready to be a NHLer right now — the eye test plus positive Corsi, scoring chance and expected goals numbers screamed “yes” — but might both the player and organization be better served by having him spend a second season with the Marlies?
Babcock came out of a meeting with Sandin and general manager Kyle Dubas unsure if the Swede even viewed the demotion as bad news.
“He knows how many minutes he was playing,” said Babcock. “When you’re sitting there and you know you’re not getting to go out there and you’d like to be going out there, it’s not as much fun.
“Now when you’re 27 and that’s your job in the National League, that’s a lot of fun. When you’re 18 or whatever he is, it’s not a lot of fun.”
The Leafs should be able to get by without him this season, now that Travis Dermott is approaching a return from off-season shoulder surgery and soon to become an option to jump into a top-four role if the Cody Ceci experiment or a further injury necessitate that kind of change.
Beyond that, the organization believes it has interchangeable depth with Justin Holl, Martin Marincin and Kevin Gravel currently battling for the sixth and seventh spots on the blue line, and Jordan Schmaltz and Ben Harpur among the candidates to be recalled from the Marlies should they need to dig deeper than that.
Barring a huge rash of injuries, the Leafs will likely resist using Sandin in more than three NHL games for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, since keeping him under 10 for the year will see the start of his entry-level contract slide to 2020-21.
That would mean he carries a cap hit of $863,333 for the next three seasons — a not-insignificant bonus for a Leafs team trying to remain a top contender while filling in around the sizeable deals belonging to Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
They’ll also be looking to fill some significant holes on the blue line next fall with Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie and Ceci all set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. There probably isn’t going to be enough money to keep more than one of those 22-plus-minute guys beyond this season.
The following year it’s No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen who’ll need a new contract and the year after that it’ll be Morgan Rielly’s turn. Having Sandin as an impactful player on a below-market deal will make some of those decisions a little easier to navigate.
It was abundantly clear to everyone that spent time around Sandin the last six weeks that he’s got a bright future ahead in the NHL. He’s a major talent and already looks like a savvy pick as the 13th defencemen taken in his draft class.
“He’s just got no panic with the puck,” said Holl. “He’s an easy guy to play with.”
Dermott noted that the teenager went out of his way to make him feel “special” by asking for small tips in the gym. There was an earnestness to the way Sandin carried himself — confident, yet humble — and it went a long way inside the dressing room.
“He came in here every day doing that and definitely earned my respect. Love the kid,” said Dermott. “And can’t wait until he’s back up.”
The smart money is on that coming next season.
For now, he’s back with the Marlies — killing penalties, manning the power play and taking every important defensive shift at 5-on-5.
It’s not hard to find examples of hockey players who suffered from being given too much too soon at the NHL level. After taking everything into account, the Leafs didn’t want to run that risk with Sandin.
“What’s the matter with being the best player [with the Marlies]? Having more fun than anyone else, having the puck more than everyone else,” said Babcock. “I never heard one kid ever complain about being the best player.”
Sandin will almost certainly be better for this decision when we next see him pull on a Maple Leafs sweater.