Sandin’s strong outing vs. Blues gives Leafs plenty to think about

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie look at the Maple Leafs’ loss to the Blues, saying there were positives or the team to take from the experience against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin’s NHL career has spanned all of 12 periods and a five-minute overtime session he watched entirely from the bench.

Look at them as building blocks for a 19-year-old defenceman who doesn’t know how long his first call-up with the Toronto Maple Leafs will last. There was some encouragement to be found in how often his number was called Monday in a tight game against the St. Louis Blues, Toronto’s toughest opponent so far.

Ice time will always tell a player how the coach is feeling about him. In the third period against St. Louis, Sandin saw seven shifts and 6:53 of action – nearly two and a half minutes more than he had played in any of the 11 periods that preceded it.

Progress.

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"I thought he had his best game last night," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday. "Played his most minutes, looked most comfortable and that’s all part of the process."

At some point a determination will need to be made about where the organization’s most promising young prospect is best to develop.

It’s a multi-layered decision that needs to factor in how it impacts the Leafs’ chances of being a contender right now, what contract and salary cap implications come with keeping him in the NHL and, most importantly, what is the best way to help Sandin become a high-impact player for the longest period of time.

The 15:20 he played against St. Louis should be introduced as "Exhibit A" in the case for keeping him with the big club. Not only was he effective while seeing a regular shift against one of the NHL’s better bottom-six forward groups, he and partner Justin Holl didn’t have to be completely sheltered with a steady diet of offensive zone starts.

In other words, he held his own in a highly competitive setting. His age and relative inexperience didn’t shine through under duress.

"I thought he was impressive," Babcock said after a 3-2 loss. "I didn’t think he got rattled."

The rookie certainly has his coach’s support.

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As much as Babcock clung to the safety net of veterans like Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak in past incarnations of the Leafs blue line, he warmed to Sandin right from the outset of training camp.

It says something that the teenager has played all four games while Holl and Martin Marincin have alternated beside him in an extended tryout. Even when Travis Dermott returns from a shoulder injury in the coming weeks, there appears to be a spot for the young Swede as long as he remains ahead of Holl and Marincin on the depth chart.

Then there’s the fact that Babcock believes Sandin is intelligent enough to learn on the fly in the NHL. He’s already logged significant minutes in the American Hockey League ¬ playing more than 30 minutes a game on some occasions for the Marlies last season – and won’t necessarily adjust to facing the best players in the world by returning there.

"You’ve got to figure out how to do what you always did at a much higher speed," said Babcock. "The people you’re boxing out are twice as big as you’ve ever seen, the guys that are forechecking are quicker, the space is smaller. But what I like about him maybe the best is that when he makes a mistake it doesn’t seem to affect his next shift. And so to me that’s a real good sign.

"His hockey sense isn’t going away, his edges aren’t going away, so he’ll just get quicker. … The more he plays and the more he sees – he’ll be evaluating his shifts – he’ll have an understanding of it himself."

Sandin’s best qualities are his mind and his maturity. It’s not like he has a booming shot or a powerful skating stride or the size needed to be a physical force. Instead, he plays smooth and smart – using his stick cleverly when defending and snuffing out rushes by taking strong angles on opponents.

Outside of his NHL debut against Ottawa, when Sandin said "I had a moment there where I actually was thinking if I was awake or not," you wouldn’t really know that he’s experiencing all of this for the first time.

The 29th overall pick from 2018 is a product of his time. The NHL is getting increasingly younger, with Sandin among seven teenaged defencemen to play a game this season.

If the performance against St. Louis becomes his baseline, it’s going to be tough to send him back to the AHL. Even though it’ll mean burning the first year of his entry-level contract (which comes with 10 games played) and allowing him to accrue a year of service (which comes with 40 games on the NHL roster) and will come with salary-cap complications since Sandin carries a higher cap hit than the organization’s other depth defenders.

We are just a week into the regular season, but he’s passed the first test.

"To be honest, I would have liked not to play four games in six days but now that we have, at least you have way more read on the players than you would have," said Babcock.

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