With the obvious caveat that we shouldn’t read too much into preseason game results, this training camp for the Leafs has been interesting in a few ways. Toronto had significant roster turnover in the summer, and with these new faces like Spezza, Barrie, Kerfoot, and Ceci, there was a lot to take in about how the lineup would fit together.
It’s always fun to look at a team on paper and make predictions, but usually in the early-going of camp and preseason I find myself second-guessing everything when it looks like all the teams are the same. Now that things have settled out and the Leafs’ real lineup has taken shape, they look proper good from top to bottom, and a big part of that has been the quick emergence of Rasmus Sandin and a step-up in play from Marty Marincin. The two have been pretty clear winners for the 5-6 spots on Toronto’s blue-line, and their style of play is showing to be exactly what the Leafs need in those roles right now.
There’s almost surely a tall ceiling for Sandin to hit, probably sooner than later, but for now it’s tough to argue he shouldn’t at least get the 9-game look to start the season anchoring the third pairing until Travis Dermott is healthy. And Marincin is doing his part in taking a strong World Championships this past spring and transitioning it to a much more confident game in playing his opposite side.
But it isn’t even necessarily about the players themselves; Sandin and Marincin have stepped up huge, but it’s been more about what the third pairing should be. Relying on that unit to just survive and clock off shifts without too many mistakes is such a common approach and it’s why the Leafs saddled themselves with guys like Polak in the past. And even though Hainsey and Zaitsev were played above those types of roles, the idea was the same: Just be there. Exist.
With Sandin’s injection of skill to that unit there’s no reason why they should ever just be content to get hemmed in and not scored on. He can already move the puck as well as anyone in the lineup, Rielly included. If Marincin just plays his solid positional game, they should compliment each other well and actually help put opposing teams on their heels. It’s what they’ve been doing already.
Again, you don’t want to put too much stock in a preseason game where the the Leafs throttled a somewhat weakened Habs team, but in their true third pairing minutes (each around 10 or so) last night, Marincin and Sandin gave up absolutely nothing, to the tune of having shots going 90% in the right direction while they were on the ice. And that’s just the thing, the offence didn’t have to take a break when the lower role players were out there. Events going against Montreal were nearly on par with while any other personnel were out there, they just vacuumed everything up defensively to go along with it. And look, I get it, not every night is going to be like that, but this hasn’t been a one-off. Teammates have continually talked about Sandin’s skill in making calm reads and moving the puck efficiently all the way through camp.
It’s been long known that depth minutes are where on-ice events go to die. Shots, scoring chances, risky stretch passes, they dry up when players are on the ice with only one thing in mind “Just chip things along, don’t mess up”. With Sandin (or even Dermott when he eventually returns) clocking in in those roles and a fourth line that has some skill and a strong level of puck protection with Timashov or Petan and Spezza, Toronto can continue to tilt the ice, even if the time is limited with such a top heavy roster. It might only be preseason, and Sandin might only be 19-years-old, but at least he’s teaching everyone that those minutes don’t have to be write-offs. That’s been worth it, even if he only sees a few weeks of real games.