Before the Maple Leafs training camp started, it very much seemed like Rasmus Sandin, the Leafs 2018 first-round pick, would be loaned back to his SHL club, Rögle BK. Sandin, unlike Timothy Liljegren last year, played with Rögle in their preseason annual tournament in Germany. In that and some other preseason play, he was relied on as a top pairing defender, and he looked very up to the task, at least against lesser competition.
And then came the trip to Canada, the rookie tournament and the training camp scrimmages, where Sandin looked good. Very good. He played in some preseason NHL games, and still looked very good. This is not so obvious a choice anymore.
Because Sandin was loaned to the OHL, where he played one year for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in his draft year, he is considered a European draftee. He can play in the AHL, and because he’s a first-round pick, his SHL club has no prior claim on him like Frölunda did with Carl Grundström last season.
There is nothing Rasmus Sandin can learn from a junior team. He’d be filling time there, like Mitch Marner did his last year in the OHL. So the choice for Sandin and the Leafs is the SHL or the AHL.
The Case for Rögle
Last year, once Liljegren had settled into the Marlies, I took a look at the team he’d left behind and was horrified. Rögle was a disaster; they had dropped a bunch of games by huge margins early in the year, and their players were openly questioning each other’s commitment.
The team realized they had to change, and they hired a new GM and that GM hired a new coach. Okay, that’s not quite true. They come as a set, because they’re twin brothers, Cam and Chris Abbott.
The Abbotts were NCAA players, although they’re from Sarnia, Ontario, and at 34, they predate the change in the hockey world that opened up spots for guys their size in the North American pro leagues. They both moved, to first Norway, and then the SHL, and played for many years. So they know Sweden, the SHL, and the style of play there. But they’re very green at running a team.
Chris Abbott walked off the ice as the captain of the champions HV71 in 2016-2017 and was unemployed for six months before he became GM. Cam, who had suffered some serious injuries, had coached a junior Swedish team for two years prior to his move behind Rögle’s bench.
So far their track record is mixed. Rögle didn’t stay truly horrible last year, but they weren’t good, and there was some considerable player turnover before this first full season under the Abbott regime. This season has started with three tough losses to top teams, and the team doesn’t seem to be able to score.
The team is stacked with older defenders, all at or near 30, and they would obviously benefit from having Sandin back. They added another veteran from the KHL, who was almost instantly injured, and they have one 20-year-old prospect, who is in his second season.
Sandin would get top-four ice time. He’d have the offensive-focused, top-line forwards on the ice with him, and he’d be playing a serious season of pro hockey in an environment that’s comfortable and familiar.
It also wouldn’t be the end of the world if Rögle was only just okay, and didn’t make the playoffs. That would leave Sandin with enough time to come over and play some significant amount of Marlies games.
In between now and then, Sandin will make the Swedish WJC team, and the SHL is much better set up than the AHL to funnel their juniors into the national team camps where they get a chance to practice before the tournament starts.
No one has many grounds to complain about the development of defenders in Sweden and the SHL, so there shouldn’t be any worries about the style of game he’ll be playing. Rögle can give Sandin a year of challenging hockey, but still have him play a lot and succeed.
The Case for the Marlies
They’re right there on the next ice sheet to the Leafs at practice. That has to be the chief benefit to putting a player in the AHL so early in his development. The Marlies have full access to the Leafs facilities, supplementary coaching, sports science staff, etc. etc. The Leafs are one of the richest hockey teams not owned by a Russian gas company, and they spend their money on the players.
The model for Sandin’s potential development is standing right there next to him in Timothy Liljegren, and in the small sample of two NHL preseason games, Sandin and Liljegren look broadly at the same level.
The Marlies have a lot of defenders, and the left-shooters already there are Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen and Andrew Nielsen. There are a host of others on AHL contracts, but they will be heading to the ECHL for the most part. Even if one of Borgman or Rosen aren’t at least in the Leafs press box, there is room for a role similar to what Liljegren had last year.
The benefit of playing in North America, and learning to expect the game to come at you faster and how to handle the angles is minor, but real, and Sandin, who has already done this for a season, is comfortable with playing the game in Canada, in English, and on the small ice.
The Marlies can give him everything he needs now, and why not now? He’ll be there next year for sure.
Neither choice is perfect, and there are things we just don’t know, but there’s negatives to both choices.
If the Leafs can develop a good relationship with the Abbotts they can have some say in Sandin’s season. But they won’t control everything he’s doing. The lack of control with the SHL plan is the big detriment.
In the AHL, however, Sandin would not be getting the regular top-four usage he would for Rögle. But pair that with the fact that Rögle is not exactly awash in top quality forwards, and this becomes a difficult question of balancing the benefits of one team over the other.
The SHL and the AHL are not dramatically different in terms of quality of play or difficulty. A good SHL team is likely better than the worst AHL teams and vice versa, but the SHL is a hockey league, not a development league. They play to win. They play their players to give them the best chance to finish at the top of the standings. The AHL is both about development and about warehousing of replacement-level NHL players, and the culture of the game and how it’s played is very different.
The AHL is more physically dangerous and demanding, the travel is bad, the season is too long, and there are players out there who are very much of the goon class. Fewer all the time — Tanner Glass and Tom Sestito are gone — but they still appear on nearly every team.
The SHL might be a bit too relaxed and too short a season for a player who doesn’t arrive until after an NHL training camp and who will miss time for the WJC.
Rögle has good veterans with experience, but the Marlies have peers Sandin can compete with. That’s the thing that’s selling me on the Marlies as the right option. That and the way in which the team handled Liljegren. The Leafs can be trusted to look after a player that young.
This is a much tougher choice that it was for Liljegren, who wasn’t going to get a lot of ice time in the SHL for sure, but one thing that might influence the Leafs is how long a development curve they foresee for Sandin. I know fans want every player in the NHL right now, but if the Leafs see Sandin as on a faster track than Travis Dermott was, maybe now is the time to get him going in Toronto, not next year.
What do you think? Set aside your desire to see him in Toronto and think about his development. Where should he play?
Where should Rasmus Sandin play?
This poll is closed
Rögle in the SHL for one season then the Marlies playoffs
Marlies all the way