But for a knee injury, Rasmus Sandin would have finished the season on the Leafs, played in the playoffs, and we’d be having a different conversation about him now than we are. He might have signed a contract already.

But he missed a lot of time, the Leafs aren’t sure where to play him, and he never got to prove he is who he believes he is. For us, that question is: how big is the chasm between our number one player under 25 and Sandin? How close is he to the rest of the contenders for next year’s number one spot?

The Player

In 2017, the Leafs drafted a Swedish right-shooting defender and, in 2018, they completed the set with a lefty. One dark and sardonic, one blond and effervescent, they looked like the cast of a teen movie. It has always been inevitable that they would be compared to each other.

That comparison isn’t all that illuminating, however. They are not interchangeable players. They begin with similar puck handling skills getting out of the zone, up the ice and into the offensive zone. Liljegren is particularly good at this, but neither of them defend around the goal mouth well. They both have an offensive game, but it is extremely different, with Sandin playing a role much more like Morgan Rielly  on the power play and at five-on-five, while Liljegren is more of a shoot for a tip player who isn’t cracking a power play lineup soon, but he does seem valuable on the PK.

They both have great hockey sense and can play Leafs hockey very well. If either of them played on another team, we’d want to get them. On the Leafs, they’ve both played some carefully managed usage in exactly the same way Travis Dermott did at their age. They also both look better than him. Liljegren’s greatest value rests in his effect on shotshare. He keeps the puck going where it should. Sandin’s greatest value rests in his effect on the quality of offence the team produces. They each have the other’s best skill as a secondary skill. They are coloured in differently in shades of the same hue. But add in the handedness and they become two different players on two different job tracks.

And if you consider the opportunity available for an impact role on the Leafs part of a player’s value for this exercise, then Liljegren has that and Sandin is looking at the back of Mark Giordano’s head. The idea of Liljegren learning from the old man he’ll likely be paired with is appealing in a cinematic sense, while Sandin needing to topple him and take his job is making him into the villain.

Now look at this timely bit of data visualization:

What we have here is the five-on-five rates of unblocked shots but it’s expressed in a special way. Each axis is a percentage value of the impact on Expected Goals for each player. So the farther into the “Good” quadrant, the greater the impact on the rates.

Now comes a moment when you need to be realistic in your assessment. This is not the moment to overflow with gushing praise or to imagine a 21-year-old defender is a superstar and will bring nothing but glory. While isolation models attempt to account for things like teammates and competition etc., they are trained on data that is overwhelmingly from players that coaches are playing as regular roster players. So in this chart, we are seeing a good coach using young players carefully, while trying to get their measure, which is why they both seem to be the best defenders on the team. Notice the rest of the small-minute forwards clustered around them. Played as regular roster players, they aren’t going to look so shiny and bright. They aren’t secretly top-pairing defenders in waiting.

No team should ever put itself in a position to choose between them, however. Both is the right answer to who should the Leafs keep, who you should vote high on the T25, and who should suit up on opening night. But the salary cap is still real. Both is hard to do.

The Votes

Second, third or fourth. Those were the votes. Sandin finished with an average ranking .11 ahead of Matt Knies. As I said yesterday, I had them tied until the last minute, and breaking either way makes a lot of sense. For a lot of voters it’s a three-way race with Liljegren in there too.

Rasmus Sandin Votes

Josh - Smaht Scouting2
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Polak4
Weighted Average2.78
Highest Rank2
Lowest Rank4
Spread in Votes2

The community voted Sandin over Liljegren by 0.19 average ranking points and everyone voted Sandin second, third or fourth. If you pressed me on why I really rate him higher than the others, my answer is a single vivid memory. Way back in a WJC, Sandin, who had learned his hockey in the Soo under a system that Sheldon Keefe left like a breadcrumb trail to the Leafs’ locker room, he did this one thing repeatedly. Some of you hate this. He circled back in his own end on a change, and as the forwards were changing, he passed the puck over to someone coming off the bench. And there was this teenage kid, playing one of the newest techniques to hit the NHL like it was just how you played hockey.

He sees the game in exactly the way the perfect version of modern hockey exist in my mind’s eye. He’s high risk, high reward. He’s high event, with an eye to the shots for being worth more than shots against hurt you. He controls the puck, he doesn’t give it away until shooting is a good risk (this is an area he needs work on). He isn’t there to hit a slapper into anyone’s shin pads. He is for me a symbol of everything I love about how the Leafs play hockey, even when it frustrates me.

Other views:

dhammm: Look: when Mark Giordano goes up to Kyle Dubas and says “I will sign 2x$800k,” I don’t care what The Plan is, you get the ink on the paper and figure it out later. Similarly, if you are Rasmus Sandin, and you had a spot on the 3rd pair to start the season and see yourself as a 7D at the end of it, you should also be asking questions and trying to leverage that into enough money that says “we, the Toronto Maple Leafs, love you, Rasmus, and we want to keep you.” No one is in the wrong here, and I am assuming they will be able to figure this out and keep things from getting toxic.

But you are a fool to trade a player like this. Players can look like all sorts of things and they can be all sorts of things. I am sure you have all seen the pretty player cards posted on Twitter that say Sandin is the bee’s knees. But let’s look at it like this: Sandin played 864 minutes last season, good for 51 games. In these minutes, he registered 1.11 P/60 and  He turned 22 in March. The list of other defensemen who managed similar numbers (between 1.10 and 1.15 P/60) at that age while playing a minimum of 500 minutes (courtesy of Evolving-Hockey): Ryan Murphy, Matt Dumba, Drew Doughty, Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, Janis Moser, Tyler Myers, Jake Gardiner, Jakob Chychrun, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Cody Ceci, Justin Faulk, Adam Larsson, John Carlson, Luke Schenn, Ty Smith, Luca Sbisa, and Roman Josi.

“Cody Ceci? Tyler Myers? Don’t they suck? Luke Schenn?” Yeah, sure, not everyone here is encased in gold. But several other players on this list had legitimate stretches in their career as star defensemen and nearly all of them are NHLers who munched top 4 minutes at some point in their careers. The downside on Sandin is he is a top 6 defenseman, barring career-ending injury. That is the floor. And the ceiling is immense, especially considering Sandin’s greater analytical profile, which suggests that he’s unlikely to be a Myers or a Ceci or a Schenn. There’s a reason wider hockey Twitter pines for a schadenfreude offer sheet.

You bet on guys like this everytime. If you aren’t betting on young guys like this, who are you betting on? I realize we’re all very “what have you done for me lately?” about players on the Leafs, so it might be difficult to recall Sandin’s season back when Muzzin and Holl were drifting in and out of the lineup with lackluster play and injury. Through all that, Sandin handled his minutes with poise and looked like he had genuinely arrived. And at 22 years old, he has room to grow still.

Brigstew: Needs to stay healthy. Needs to show he is worthy of a top four role as a defenseman in tougher minutes. Oh, needs a contract too.

TomK421: Sir, if you don’t have a contract by the time this article comes out you are in danger of no longer being Best Rasmus. Please be Best Rasmus.

Hardev: Your contract status doesn’t change your quality and ability. Sandin is great, he’s better than Liljegren in a vacuum where position and handedness doesn’t matter, he’s going to be the second pair left defenseman for the Leafs well within 18 months. Unfortunately right now they’re in a rut. The reason why he’s not signed for the same or less than Liljegren is because he’s better and deserves $2-3 million on even a one or two year deal. That’s what all his peers are signing for. I’m not sure how this ends, but I would much rather have Rasmus Sandin than one year of Kerfoot or Holl. I would make the move and pay him.

Is Rasmus Sandin on the Leafs on opening day?