TORONTO (July 27) — The voice on the other end of the telephone line was direct and assertive. From a former general manager that everyone in the hockey world would instantly recognize. “Howard, you aren’t even close in your assessment of Rasmus Sandin. He has some skill but he is not big or heavy enough to be a star defenseman in the National Hockey League. If the Leafs do not re–sign Morgan Rielly, their blue line will be in a shambles.” So much for my oft–repeated theory that the Leafs need to trade Rielly before (or during) the final year of his contract and provide Sandin, the club’s first–round draft choice (29th overall) in 2018, important playing minutes. “If Toronto doesn’t find a way to fit Rielly under its cap figure, the team will be sorry,” added the voice.
A quick review of Sandin’s physical numbers rather confirms the analysis. The Leafs list him at 5–foot–11, 183 pounds. Given that NHL clubs routinely exaggerate player size, he’s probably 5–9 or 5–10 and 170 pounds. Not nearly “heavy” enough to dominate the back end for the Maple Leafs. Neither is Rielly a Victor Hedman–like behemoth, listed at 6–foot–1, 219 pounds. But, he’s built more robustly than Sandin and has proven capable of handling himself in all areas of the ice. Problem is — as with most everything relating to the Leafs — the salary cap.
Unless general manager Kyle Dubas spins some magic, he cannot improve the club in a meaningful way by retaining the contracts of Rielly, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Which total $45,505,616 against (or 55.8% of) the cap ceiling. Neither can he evidently re–sign Rielly to a per–season raise, next summer, on his $5 million salary. According to the website capfriendly.com, Toronto is committed to 17 contracts for next season, totaling $72,144,783, which includes the “dead cap” salary retention ($1.2 million) of former Leaf Phil Kessel. That leaves Dubas a paltry $9,355,217 with which to add six contracts. Included, absolutely must be a goaltender capable of efficiently sharing the load with No. 1 Jack Campbell. It is hardly an enviable circumstance and is complicated, immeasurably, by the assessment of the former GM. If accurate, and Sandin cannot withstand the physical grind of the NHL, the Maple Leafs are devoid of a prime defense prospect.
RASMUS SANDIN PONDERS THE SITUATION LAST SEASON ON DEFENSE WITH THE LEAFS. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
Size matters in the big league, especially on the back end. The Leafs showed this is true by protecting Justin Holl (6–foot–4, 210 pounds) over Travis Dermott for last week’s draft to stock the expansion Seattle Kraken. Though Dermott isn’t small (listed at 6–foot–1, 205 pounds), he gets overmatched, physically, in key situations and tends to turn away from the rough going. Such a maneuver may have cost the Leafs their opening–round playoff series against Montreal. You’ll recall how the visitors dominated the overtime session of Game 6 (May 29) at the Bell Centre, needing a goal to eliminate the Habs. Rather than carrying the puck out of the defensive zone toward a Montreal forward, Dermott circled back near the blueline and sloppily turned over the puck to Paul Byron, who found Jesperi Kotkaniemi streaking uncovered in the slot. Kotkaniemi beat Campbell at 15:15 of the extra period, setting up a decisive match, two nights later, at Scotiabank Arena in which the Leafs were barely competitive.
There was little grey area in Sandin’s performance during 14 games last season. He flashed his puck skill on several occasions, prompting my assessment that he needs bigger minutes. Yet, there were glaring defensive blunders. He was directly responsible for two Montreal goals in the Game 5 overtime loss at home — the first, a move typical of a defenseman trying to avoid contact when he failed to chip the puck into neutral territory.
On the flip side, there were similar concerns about another Swedish defenseman in 2008–09.
The Leafs chose Anton Strålman in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL draft. He appeared in 88 games over two seasons and did seem to shy away from physical contact. John Ferguson traded him to Calgary for veteran forward Wayne Primeau, then Calgary flipped him to Columbus for a third–round pick. It wasn’t until his seventh NHL season, with the New York Rangers, that Strålman became a reliable Top 4 blueliner. He helped New York reach the 2014 Stanley Cup final (losing to the Kings) then signed a five–year, $22 million contract, that summer, with Tampa Bay. For the second consecutive season, his team made it to the Cup final (the Lightning knocked off the Rangers for the Eastern Conference title) and lost to Chicago. Strålman, now 34 and playing with Florida, had four very good years in Tampa. Hindsight, always 20/20, proves Toronto should have been more patient with him.
DEFENSEMAN ANTON STRALMAN BEGAN HIS NHL CAREER WITH THE LEAFS IN 2007–08. NHL IMAGES
Is this a lesson, therefore, as it pertains to Sandin? Not so, according to my vehement source.
“No, Sandin will not be able to handle the physical requirements of the NHL,” came the repeat appraisal. “This is a player who cannot be handed the responsibility of replacing Morgan Rielly. That, I can assure you.”
In the big picture, this is hardly an unfamiliar issue with the Leafs.
Since last winning the Stanley Cup, in 1967, the club has developed only two standout defenseman, simultaneously. Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull came aboard in 1973–74, teaming effectively with Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald on the good Toronto clubs of the mid–to–late–70’s. Salming is the last Leafs blueliner (in 1977) to be named a first team all star. He was chosen for the second team in 1975–76–78–79–80 and went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. Turnbull still holds the Leafs defense record of 79 points in one season (1976–77) and the NHL mark for most goals in one game by a defenseman (five, against Detroit, on Feb. 2, 1977). Though Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle had some good years later on, the Leafs have never possessed a Salming facsimile. Rielly came close in 2018–19 with a 72–point effort, the best since Salming and Turnbull. But, his performance has since regressed, though he did play mostly well against Montreal in the lost Stanley Cup round.
Perhaps Dubas should heed the warning of my ex–GM pal. If he somehow can, under strangling cap restraint.
The key to any collection of memorabilia is to maintain quality and condition. This is never done by accident. I haven’t been perfect in the endeavor — nobody is — but I’m very careful when storing (in enclosed boxes) published material such as magazines, media guides and game programs. Those that follow this blog know that I often post images of my sports collection. Here are items, in close to original/mint condition, that date from 1964 to 1977:
The National Hockey League’s official guide (edited by Ron Andrews) from 55 years ago, the season before Bobby Orr broke in with the Boston Bruins. As you can see, the four corners of the 276–page volume are in very good condition and the front cover is immaculate.
Toronto Maple Leafs media guides from 1965–66, 1966–67 and 1967–68. From the year (middle) the team last won the Stanley Cup and (right) the first season of the expanded, 12–team NHL, when the Leafs were last the defending champion. As part of my collection, I have every Leafs media guide from 1962–63 to 2016–17.
Magazines and programs are particularly challenging to maintain, given the delicate page–stock and easily bent corners. Again, I ensure my items are properly stacked in labeled boxes. Others, I had bound into book form in the late 1980’s. Of my loose items, these Maple Leaf Gardens programs from December/January of the 1968–69 season are in excellent condition.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, pocketbooks previewing the NHL were all the rage. These items, with cardboard covers, were easier to maintain, but the corners still required careful guarding. The above books are from the mid–70’s, when the Philadelphia Flyers ruled the NHL with consecutive Stanley Cup titles, before giving way to the Montreal Canadiens dynasty under Scotty Bowman.
First editions are particularly valuable, such as the inaugural–season media guides of the Kansas City Scouts (1974–75) and Cleveland Barons (1976–77). If a young hockey fan, you may be wondering “who?” The Scouts came into the NHL as an expansion team with the Washington Capitals but lasted only two years in K.C. The franchise moved to Denver in 1976–77 as the Colorado Rockies… then to East Rutherford NJ in 1982–83 as the New Jersey Devils. The Cleveland Barons were the reborn California Seals of the original expansion in 1967. After nine seasons in Oakland, the club re–located to Richfield, Ohio, but endured only two more years before merging rosters with the Minnesota North Stars, who transferred to Dallas in 1993–94. Did you get all that?
The Street & Smith’s Pro Football preview magazine was a must–have in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. The issues would normally hit news–stands by the beginning of July. I have every edition from 1964 (top–left) to 2007. The above items are in exceptional condition at ages 57 and 49.
Also in near–perfect condition are the Canadian Football League’s Record Manual (left) from 55 years ago (the logos are epic) and the Toronto Argonauts media guide from two years later. Having been properly stowed, neither of the white covers show signs of age.