Maple Leafs’ Commentary: Rasmus Sandin as a Hybrid Left-Winger?

Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas made an excellent acquisition at the 2022 trade deadline when he traded a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, a third-round pick in the 2023 draft, and a fourth-round pick in the 2024 draft for defenseman Mark Giordano and winger/center Colin Blackwell. Then, immediately following the end of the 2022 playoffs, Dubas signed Giordano to a two-year extension for the paltry amount of $800,000 per season. 

Signing Giordano Brings Both Problems and Possibilities

Giordano, while not the Norris Trophy caliber defenseman he was in 2019, is only three years removed from that award. At 38 years of age, he’s still playing at a top-four level. In 20 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs, he scored two goals and added twelve assists (for 14 points). That’s an eight-goal, 49-point pace for 82 games. 

Mark Giordano Toronto Maple Leafs
Mark Giordano, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

In our recent series of articles ranking the Maple Leafs’ defensemen for their offensive and defensive play during the regular season and playoffs, Giordano ranked fourth in offensive statistics, first in defensive statistics, and was third in our overall rating for defensemen in the regular season. Then he ranked second in offense, fourth in defense, and tied for second overall in the team rankings during his playoff games.  

Sign up for our regular 'Maple Leafs Newsletter' for all the latest.

Giordano’s signing gives the Maple Leafs four NHL-caliber defensemen for the left side, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Mark Giordano, and Rasmus Sandin. Sandin is an RFA, but we fully expect him to sign an extension with the Maple Leafs.  

Having So Many Good Left-Side Defensemen Causes a Log Jam

The problem the Maple Leafs now have four quality players on the left side of the defense. As long as they are all 100 percent healthy, not everyone can play. Three of those defensemen – Rielly, Muzzin, and Giordano – all rank ahead of the 22-year-old Sandin. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly is the Toronto Maple Leafs best defenseman
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Getting Sandin the ice time he needs to further his development might be difficult. Simply put, he needs to play, and the more he plays the better for his development. 

Although Muzzin and Giordano would be ahead of Sandin on the depth chart, neither of them are spring chickens. Muzzin is 33 and his body has taken a beating with his physical, hard-nosed style of play. Staying healthy has been an issue for him since he joined the Maple Leafs in January of 2019. 

Related: Two of the Cheapest NHL Trades Ever

Giordano will be 39 years old when the puck drops on the 2022-23 regular season. While he’s been a workhorse without any major injury issues, he has played well over 1,000 games in his career. His age and workload might catch up to him sooner or later.

What to do? 

A Radical Idea for Finding Sandin More Ice Time

How do the Maple Leafs give Sandin the ice time he needs and manage the workload of both Muzzin and Giordano? We had suggested in a previous post to run a rotation of defensemen to keep them all fresh and healthy. One “out of the box” idea is to play Sandin as a hybrid, both a left-winger and a defenseman. 

Head coach Sheldon Keefe could go with an eleven forward and seven defensemen scheme. It’s not a new idea for him, and he’s done that this past season. 

Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
Rasmus Sandin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, it’s obvious listening to his media scrums he doesn’t like to do that. We can understand why. It’s much easier to run four forward lines and three defensive pairs than to figure out how to rotate two forwards and an extra defenseman in and out of the lineup. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Sandin Could Push for Roster Spot

However, dressing Sandin as a winger allows Keefe to play Rielly, Muzzin, and Giordano on the left side of the defense. At the same time, it gives him a defensively responsible winger to play on the fourth line. 

Comparing Sandin’s Production With Simmonds

If we compare Sandin’s offensive output with what fourth-liner Wayne Simmonds has produced, we see that Sandin scored five goals and 11 assists (for 16 points) in 51 games last season. Coincidently, Simmonds also scored five goals and 11 assists (for 16 points). However, he did it in 72 games. It took Simmonds nineteen more games to score the same number of goals and points. 

Sandin’s skill level with and without the puck is far superior to Simmonds at this point in their careers. If at any time during the game, any one of the six of the defensemen goes down, then Sandin could move back to his normal defensive position. 

Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
Rasmus Sandin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The one question this scenario brings to mind is would it adversely affect Sandin’s play. Both Kyle Dubas and Keefe have stated that Sandin is an extremely intelligent player with a high hockey IQ. We think he should be quite capable of learning the winger’s role while maintaining his level of play, and possibly growing it, as a defenseman if needed.

Plus you never know, Sandin might excel on the wing. That was the story of Wendel Clark’s switch from defenseman to forward. Clark needed to switch to forward to find a space to play; he did, and the rest is Maple Leafs’ history.

Other Maple Leafs’ Players Have Made a Similar Switch

Back in 2014, Dave Nonis, who was the GM of the Maple Leafs also considered moving Jake Gardiner from defense to forward. In an article written in The Hockey News, Jason Kay reported that Nonis “ruminated on the notion, since Gardiner had played some of his formative years up front.” In the end, Nonis did not move Gardiner. 

Related: The Maple Leafs’ Best Defenseman? Rasmus Sandin

Kay went on to write about five NHL players who did play both forward and defense. Some of those players include Red Kelly, Sergei Federov, Phil Housley, Dustin Byfuglien, and Brent Burns.  

So the idea is not new by any means. Could it be worth a try?

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]