Sandin Patiently Waiting to play as Leafs' Eighth Defenseman

A healthy defence has kept Rasmus Sandin from playing this season, but a salary cap crunch and team depth has prevented him from making an NHL-level salary.
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TORONTO — On Mar. 10, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin suited up for his 28th game in the NHL. His team defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.

Days later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the regular season to come to an abrupt end. The opportunity to play — largely created by injuries — wasn't there for Sandin when the team returned for the 2020 Playoffs in August.

This season, 10 games have passed and Sandin waits and skates.

'It's obviously frustrating," Sandin said on Monday. "It was a very long time ago since I played in a game."

Sandin is the only skater who has spent time on the taxi squad, but hasn't played in a game this season. The forwards have seen a regular rotation of players bounce between the fourth line and taxi squad. Travis Dermott and Mikko Lehtonen's have occupied the team's sixth and seven spots on the depth chart on defense.

"We're sensitive to the idea that he hasn't played yet and how difficult that is," Keefe said of Sandin. "We have no doubts he's going to be an everyday NHL player, but we need him to be as prepared as possible."

Sandin's situation is complicated and various factors have led to his current predicament.

The first issue is roster health.

Last season, the team suffered various injuries to players on the back end. Morgan Rielly missed two months with a foot injury. Jake Muzzin was out for a month with a similar ailment. Other injuries to Cody Ceci (now with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Dermott created a path for Sandin to score a goal and add seven assists in 28 games.

This season, the Leafs have no man-games lost to injuries from defensemen.

The second issue, and this particularly affects Sandin's income, is salary cap issues.

With a fully healthy lineup, the Maple Leafs could only carry 20-21 players on the active roster while staying under the $81.5 million salary cap.

Teams are permitted to carry as many as 23 players on the active roster.

Mikko Lehtnonen and Sandin have been the team's seventh and eighth defensemen but have spent most — and in Sandin case almost all — of the time on the team's taxi squad.

Lehtonen has played in four games this season and recorded his first point, an assist, in the team's 4-3 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.

Both players are on entry-level contracts that give Toronto flexibility to be moved up and down without the risk of losing them to waivers.

The 26-year-old Lehtonen signed a one-year, $925,000 contract in October. Sandin is currently in the second year of his three-year contract that also pays him $925,000.

Both players earned a $92,500 signing bonus annually as part of the contract. But the remaining balance is in NHL salary. The only way to earn that is to be on an active NHL roster.

Lehtonen has spent time on and off the roster this season, while Sandin has spent just a handful of days, including the publication date of this article when they moved him to the active roster on Sunday.

"We've had Lehtonen ahead of him (Sandin) in terms of getting in the lineup but he's got to continue to stay ready and learn and get better through the process here," Keefe said.

In normal circumstances, both players would earn their AHL salary of $70,000 when not on the active roster. But with the Toronto Marlies season yet to get underway due to the current pandemic, their salary is in flux. As part of the collectively-bargained transition rules for 2020-21, players on standard players contracts with an AHL component will receive no less than 40 percent of their minor-league pay.

The Canadian teams in the AHL still don't have a schedule in place, while the remaining American teams that elected to take part this season start on Feb. 5.

"It's still up in the air there right now," Sandin said. "Right now, I'm just happy to be here and be around the guys and try to get better every day."

As part of the taxi squad, Lehtonen and Sandin earn NHL-level benefits and per diem ($112 per day). But as illustrated, the money lost by not being on an active roster on any day of the season is significant. The Leafs manage their roster by making paper transactions to keep players happy.

Before long-term injuries to Nick Robertson (knee) and Joe Thornton (ribs), the team was keeping players off the active roster to generate more cap space that accumulates on a daily basis. The injuries have at least provided players like Lehtonen and Sandin some income relief.

But for Sandin, it's about wanting to play. For now, he waits.

Thornton and Robertson skate

The Maple Leafs had a handful of players work on skills on Monday as the rest of the team took another day off from their four-game road trip in Alberta. Thornton and Robertson skated at Ford Performance Centre.

There was no update on exactly when they may come back. Players are required to miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days once placed on LTI. The earliest Robertson is eligible to return to the lineup would be Feb. 10 against the Montreal Canadiens. Thornton's earliest allowed return date is Feb. 15 against the Ottawa Senators.

3-on-3 debate

There has been much debate about the Leafs deployment of players for the start of overtime against the Oilers on Saturday.

Keefe explained his decision to go with John Tavares and William Nylander as the forwards to start, instead of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

"By the time overtime started, I looked down on the bench and didn't feel Auston was quite ready to go out again skate up and down the rink on 3-on-3," Keefe said. "I felt another minute or so would be beneficial to him."

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