This is the key question: What role does Rasmus Sandin play of the Leafs next year?

The Defensive Roster

The one that’s going to be asked instead is do the Toronto Maple Leafs have enough cap space to re-sign Sandin. Or worse, some palaver about handedness will dominate the conversation. Yes the Leafs have a lot of left-shooting defenders and only Justin Holl and Timothy Liljegren as righties. But I’m going to beg you to forget that entirely. Imagine a world where that’s not important at all. It actually is a little important, but not to the extent it seems to dominate discussions on roster choices. There’s one instance where having a good offensive right-hand shot on defence is crucial, and I’ll tell you that secret later.

So what will Sandin’s role be? Most people will assume the Leafs will do this:

Morgan Rielly - T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin - Rasmus Sandin
Mark Giordano - Timothy Liljegren
Carl Dahlström

That works, what’s the issue?

It might work, and it’s plausible, because all you have to do is trade Justin Holl. You could even keep him around and sit him in the pressbox.  I have no complaints on the handedness issue, but I think that the Maple Leafs are a team that’s learned the hard way about both depth and injuries, while they also develop prospects in a very conservative way. These two things are in conflict with the salary cap set to rise by only one million.

Fans like to make up rosters that have the bare minimum at every position, never build in redundancy, and also allow them to keep every drafted prospect while only trading players they have decided are “bad”. These ideas are extremely high risk, and rely on the rosiest predictions of young players. Every possible permutation of Kyle Dubas should have known Liljegren was a top-four defender has already decorated Twitter and the comments of this site. He should have traded Holl, or Muzzin, not re-signed Rielly, etc. etc. Obviously.

The fact is Liljegren never played a genuine top-four role in the regular season and got yanked out of the playoffs at the first sign of being unable to handle himself physically in the defensive zone. Along the way, however, he showed exciting development that was harder to see in the AHL. The set of skills he has add value in interesting ways to the Leafs.

Rasmus Sandin played something much more realistically top-four. His skills are a more direct analogue of Morgan Rielly’s, but anyone claiming he’s going to eclipse Rielly’s level of offensive playmaking is dreaming. We can’t know how Sandin would have been used after Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin were added because he was injured.

Prospect Development Paths

On 32 Thoughts on Monday Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek talked about Ville Husso a bit. Husso is the St. Louis goalie on an expiring deal who sometimes outplayed Jordan Binnington and sometimes didn’t this season. He has fewer games played, and is much less a known quantity as a goalie. Both drafted by the Blues, they were prospects in the system in 2019 when the Blues had a goalie emergency. Husso was hurt, and it was Binnington, the guy no one took that seriously, the older prospect who’d been passed by Husso, who got the call.

Husso’s chance at the NHL was taken because of that random event, and that’s so often how careers get decided in hockey. Teams may have intentions and plans, and players have desires and a belief in themselves, but fate decides. It is hockey, after all.

They talked quickly about Sandin later on, and without quoting it all directly, I’ll sum it up by saying Friedman’s sources think something might happen with a trade for Sandin because he doesn’t seem to fit in multiple ways — handedness, cost, development path. It’s not a rumour, more informed speculation that sounds like there’s a little more heat than usual behind it. Friedman says he was told to watch what happens there. It got me to re-examine this concept of the Leafs depth on defence, their intentions and what role fate might play in shifting those plans.

The Leafs drafted Liljegren and then Sandin with two first-round picks at a time when their defence was Rielly and the next best might have been Ron Hainsey. They obviously like and believe in both players. They’ve invested heavily in their development in the AHL — utilizing the benefit of having European prospects who can play in-house as teenagers. They both have Product of Toronto Maple Leafs stamped on their - er, well, you get the picture.

And yet, if you ask me if the Leafs have the cap space to sign them, I’ll say that’s the wrong question because cap concerns start at the top of the team, not the depth. And they are depth. Even if Kyle Dubas believed in his heart last summer he’d get the good results and growth in their games that both Liljegren and Sandin showed, he should not have assumed it would happen. He shouldn’t assume now that either of them, or both on alternate days, can handle a real top-four, everyday, no-sheltering role with no safety net.

If he did, he wouldn’t have signed Giordano. If he was willing to put it all on red, he’s have moved Holl at the deadline and he would have taken a pick for Nick Ritchie not Ilya Lyubushkin. I struggle to imagine the Leafs just assuming both of these players are full time reliable NHLers now.

Cap Space vs Good Intentions

The dollars left over in cap room for the bottom third or so of the roster depend on what the Leafs want to do at forward and in net. The right way to do that is to make the big decisions first and then see what still fits. And even if both Liljegren and Sandin take some low dollar one-year deals long before July 13, what about next year when the cap is still tight?

It’s facile to decide Jake Muzzin is done, so trade him — which is impossible without Muzzin’s cooperation. He sure didn’t look done in the playoffs. I don’t think Dubas is inclined to assume that either unless he knows things about Muzzin’s health we don’t. But Dubas has a window next summer to move Muzzin if that’s the right thing to do, and if Sandin and Liljegren can share some minutes on the bottom four on the right side, that’s a nice holding pattern, and that’s exactly what Dubas should do. If his job is to create the best environment for these two defenders to prosper on the Leafs.

That’s not his job.

I don’t think cap hit is really the issue, although the Leafs can’t exactly go find another $5 million defender and get a big upgrade. I don’t think handedness matters either. You want a right-shot savant when you have no right-shot forwards and you need your power-play defender to be a righty. Otherwise, if the player can play his off-side, you just go with the best player. You break a tie with handedness, you don’t choose by that first.

I once wrote the case for trading Nazem Kadri, which had nothing to do with suspensions and was entirely about cap hit and role. I think I was right, and the people who have retconned that move into a mistake are wrong. I wrote the case for trading Frederik Andersen, and that turned out to have likely been a good idea, although the results would have been unpredictable. Now I’m going three-for-three on players I really love. I think the Leafs really should consider trading Sandin. It’s not as clear-cut a choice as Kadri was, and it’s not for the same reasons I thought Andersen should go a year sooner. But I don’t think anyone talking to Friedman has taken handedness too seriously. I think they see that Sandin has potential, but isn’t for sure an asset in the top four on the Leafs right now.

It really is a question of role. Defenders Sandin’s age, if they’re really good, are big-minute NHL guys. Often that’s because the team was really bad the year it drafted them, and they still aren’t really competitive yet, so their stupid rookie mistakes don’t matter. Sandin’s not that kind of prospect. He’s not a Heiskanen or a Dahlin. And the Leafs aren’t climbing the developmental hill of a rebuild. They are on the top, locked in the endless battle with the five or six other teams up there and a dozen trying to yank them down.

Sandin is a team player, a Dubas player going back to when he was virtually a child. He’s not asking for a trade. But he will be eventually if he doesn’t get meaningful minutes in the NHL. What happens if, with the training wheels ripped off and Sandin and Liljegren playing real NHL minutes where they are required to perform every night in all weathers — what if they can’t hack it yet?

That’s the risk that will keep a GM from assuming. And that’s why prospects don’t get promoted on a contender when you think they should, but only after it’s obvious they can be sent over the boards and trusted every shift. If the Leafs were a 23-man roster this might be a different conversation, because you could just sign Russian Ron Hainsey (Lyubushkin) to play with Rielly, put Brodie with Muzzin because that’s a good pairing Sheldon Keefe likes a lot, and rotate Giordano with Liljegren, Sandin and Holl. Everyone gets games, and the best players gradually play more as the season goes on and there’s redundancy and depth for the playoffs. This is such a good idea, teams should try it more often.

The Leafs can’t do that.

The cap is exerting pressure on the team’s desire to have redundancy. And you might think young unproven players are how you solve that. But the lower risk way is to generate futures out of your excess potential, and fill in with cheap known quantities.

The Leafs shouldn’t trade Sandin because they don’t “like” him or think he is “bad”. They should consider it because one of Sandin or Liljegren is the most expendable player they have who will return value, and free up cap space — if not this year, then as soon as they’re arbitration eligible which is next season. A trade for Sandin is swapping his potential (which is significant) for a lower-risk player now who needs limited and cheaper skills to play with Rielly and the ability to play Brodie with Muzzin together. Liljegren is safe with his mentor, playing minutes that he can do for 82 games, and the door is still open for him. That door is open for him to be the man with the skills that complement either Muzzin or Rielly, while Sandin’s really don’t.

I don’t think this is a choice you make at the outset of roster construction, and all trades depend on the take — the Kadri trade was really somewhat rare in that it didn’t really need a specific return to make it work (Tyson Barrie was a rental and Alex Kerfoot only had to do half Kadri’s job). But when it comes time to see who loses the game of musical chairs, it might be Sandin, and that might actually make sense for everyone. If it comes to pass, Pierre LeBrun can call it good for both sides.

It won’t make me happy, though.