“Will he or won’t he” is a traditional September pastime in Leafs Land. This annual rite of autumn is usually spurred on by the Leafs management or coaches saying something relatively vague about the chances of a prospect making the NHL team out of training camp. That’s all it takes to kick of days of speculation about whether or not “the kid” will make it.
Here’s some examples:
There were other contestants on “will he or won’t he” over recent years: Kasperi Kapanen, Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson, Travis Dermott, Garret Sparks, and even William Nylander once upon a time. Most of the time, when that question is asked in training camp, the answer is a resounding, “No, no he won’t.” Most of the time, a young player just coming into his own is sent to the AHL and doesn’t play on the big team. But if something is only true most of the time, there’s always hope that this time the fun new guy will totally, against all serious analysis, make the NHL.
Starting this game in early August is a bit unusual, and this time it’s Kyle Dubas with a willing accomplice in Tomas Montén, the head coach of the Swedish junior team, who got it going with speculation about Rasmus Sandin at the World Junior Summer Showcase, where Sweden played without Sandin. Montén leaves the door open for Sandin not being available to Team Sweden at the WJC because Sandin might make the Leafs. He starts off saying this is a hard thing to do, but he’s not saying absolutely that Sandin will be at the WJC.
Dubas did an interview at the same event where he talked about the prospects who were there: Nick Robertson and Mikko Kokkonen and Mitch Marner’s contract, but he also discussed Sandin, and he gave the perfect non-answer answer that leads off “will he or won’t he” season.
He’s not saying Sandin won’t make the Leafs because Dermott may still be injured, and he is saying Sandin played a meaningful role that grew in time on ice and impact as the Marlies entered the playoffs, but he’s also not saying Sandin will make the Leafs.
But is this the usual dance to generate interest, motivate the player and not be caught out assuming something that turns out to be untrue a few months later? Or is there a genuine chance Sandin plays on the Leafs?
Is there really an open spot on the roster?
The Leafs currently have eight defenders on NHL contracts who played in the NHL last year:
- Morgan Rielly
- Cody Ceci
- Jake Muzzin
- Tyson Barrie
Those four are the locks for the team. Then there is:
- Ben Harpur
- Jordan Schmaltz
- Martin Marincin
- Justin Holl
The assumed to be injured Travis Dermott makes nine. Obviously someone like Schmaltz might play some AHL, so might Harpur. Holl might just sit in the press box again, and none of that is locked in right now, but that doesn’t look like a wide open field, even leaving aside the fact that we don’t know what Dermott’s real return date to the NHL is.
The Leafs have a plan A, B, C, D and E at almost every position this season, so anything is possible, including Sandin taking the third pairing left D roster spot all year. Possible doesn’t mean probable, however.
9 games, 40 games and burning years
If your fun prospect in question is 18 or 19 as of September 15, like Sandin this year, his contract can “slide” if he is sent back to the AHL as long as he hasn’t played more than nine NHL games. This is games played, not time on the 23-man roster. Sliding means the year doesn’t count against the length of the contract. So Sandin, who was signed in 2018, slid last year, and his contract doesn’t expire now until 2022. If he plays less than 10 games in the NHL this year, it slides to 2023.
This matters in terms of kicking the cap hit can down the road, but it’s not a very good reason to keep a genuinely capable player out of the lineup. The Leafs happily burned a year of William Nylander’s ELC to get him in the NHL when they wanted him there. By signing Joseph Woll last year when they did, they instantly burned a year of his ELC. The Ducks played Maxime Comtois exactly 10 games last year, partly because of an injury, but that’s generally a really dumb thing to do.
If Sandin isn’t cut right at the end of training camp, the team will need to decide at nine games played if he’s staying or not.
The more meaningful number, according to some analysts, is the 40 game limit. A season of at least 40 games on the active roster (so not games played) counts as an accrued season towards UFA status, and you don’t want to play a player over that limit unless you really mean it. He’s got to be a full-time NHLer for sure. Having UFA rights sooner means a lot in terms of future contract negotiations since every player expects to be paid a premium for term that covers UFA years when signing a deal.
Another consideration for who makes the team is waiver exemption. For the first time in a while, the Leafs have a lot of non-exempt players, and there isn’t a lot of point in signing the best of the best of the AHL/NHL tweeners if they all get claimed on waivers. Sandin is, of course, waiver exempt, and that raises the chances of him getting a quick cut to the Marlies as soon as the season opens.
Time on Ice
I saved the most important consideration for last. Not all prospects are created equally, and when the Leafs called up Rinat Valiev to sit in the press box on a road trip and be there for practices and emergencies, that was no great loss to him that he missed a bunch of AHL games. Rasmus Sandin is not Rinat Valiev. At 19, the proper place for Sandin is on the ice, playing meaningful minutes and special teams. The chances of him getting that in the NHL is slim. He’s guaranteed to get that in the AHL. As Dubas says in the interview above, he was playing more than 20 minutes per game by the playoffs.
Will he play in the WJC?
There are two things that can prevent Sandin from playing in the WJC: an injury or a permanent roster spot on the Leafs. If he’s in the AHL and healthy, they must release him to the WJC if asked.
Will he or won’t he make the NHL?
For any player not a recent top-five draft pick, the answer is almost always no. You can’t go wrong with pessimism here. And while I understand the motives of Montén to kick the buzz up around Sandin, and I also get why Dubas isn’t going to just say that Sandin is going right to the top pair on the Marlies for the year, this hype machine has a downside. People buy in, and then they get disappointed, and they look for someone to blame. That blame usually falls on the coach who is perceived as hating youth and loving old guys and I’m not sure the atmosphere around the Leafs needs more negativity like that.
But nothing is carved in stone. That’s absolutely true. I believe that the Leafs are not sure on any of their new players signed for fringe positions. Even Ilya Mikheyev, who is claimed to be a lock for the top six, is not a lock for anything. I think the only sure thing on the Leafs roster construction this summer was that Garret Sparks was never going to be on this team. Every thing the Leafs did telegraphed that they would happily take an ex-Flyer over him. Other than that, it’s up to training camp performance. That said, the winners are not going to be your favourite AHL prospect. It’s a contest between 26-year-old recent signings: Pontus Aberg vs Kenny Agostino, not Pontus Aberg vs Jeremy Bracco, The same holds on defence, now that the Leafs have added a few depth signings to compete for the un-coveted third pair.
Which brings me to this: Rasmus Sandin won’t play in the NHL this year for 40 games, and his chances of being played more than nine are vanishingly small.
Yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance. You call it now...will he or won’t he?
How many NHL games will Sandin play:
This poll is closed
less than 10
less than 40
40 or more