The Washington Capitals made four deals at this year’s trade deadline with a glance toward the future. The biggest one of them all was acquiring 23-year-old defenseman Rasmus Sandin from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a first-round pick and Erik Gustafsson.
Sandin arrived in DC after being squeezed out in Toronto and immediately played some of the most minutes around the league. Sandin responded by becoming the first Capitals defenseman in franchise history to score three points in his debut and setting a club record with eight points in his first four games.
Sandin’s production has made him an instant fan favorite in Washington and has raised eyebrows with some in the Toronto media, questioning why the Leafs decided to let him go.
While Sandin’s dashboard stats have been impressive and garnered headlines across the league, his five-on-five play has been somewhat concerning.
It’s still early, but I decided to research Sandin’s performance after 10 games and try to figure out what the Capitals really have in this young and budding Swedish rearguard.
It’s no secret that immediately upon arrival in DC that Sandin started racking up points. In his first nine games with the Caps with John Carlson out of the lineup, Sandin only failed to register at least one point in two games. He had multi-point games three times. In the month of March, despite playing one less game than many of his teammates, he is third on the Caps in scoring with 12 points (1g, 11a).
In his time as a Caps player, Sandin ranks fifth among all regular NHL defensemen in assists per 60 minutes and sixth in total points per 60 minutes. The only defenders that have really outpaced him during that timeframe are Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, Brandon Montour, and Alex Pietrangelo. Those are some of the most elite names when it comes to providing offense from the blueline and perennial Norris Trophy candidates.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 18, 2023
Another category that Sandin is mixing it up in with the truly elite players in the NHL comes with just how much time on ice he has received early in his Caps career. Over the past ten outings, Sandin has skated 45 more minutes than the next Caps player. Before Carlson arrived back into the lineup on Thursday, Sandin was playing exactly 25 minutes per game. That ranked tenth in the entire league and was more than names like Makar, Rasmus Dahlin, Aaron Ekblad, Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, etc.
Over three minutes per game of that ice time came with the Caps on the power play. With Sandin at the helm of the team’s power play, the Caps saw a modest uptick in effectiveness (23.3 percent) versus when he was not yet on the team (20.9 percent). Alex Ovechkin has three power-play tallies and six total power-play points in the Month of March which is more than his totals in January and February combined. Sandin provided an assist on two of those Ovechkin markers.
To say Sandin’s shifts with the Caps have been high event would be an understatement. Only one player in the entire league has been on the ice for more total goals than Sandin (41) and that’s Heiskanen (44) of the Dallas Stars. Only three players have been on the ice for more goals against than Sandin (20) in the league. The only caveat there is that he is the only player that has been out for 20 or more goals against that has seen more (21) go in the opposing net with him on the ice.
Narrowing our focus to just Sandin’s five-on-five shifts, the story remains almost the same. Sandin has been on the ice at five-on-five for 13 Capitals goals and 14 goals against for the opposition. That’s where things start to get a little worrying. Sandin’s offensive-zone start percentage (65.5 percent) is second on the team among defensemen only to his regular partner Trevor van Riemsdyk (66.7 percent). With him on the ice in those minutes with rather favorable zone starts, the Caps have seen just 48.2 percent of the shot attempts, 42.2 percent of the expected goals, 45.3 percent of the scoring chances, and 42.2 percent of the high-danger chances. Not great.
There was a stretch of four games (March 14-19) where Sandin was on the ice for 13 of 16 even-strength goals the Caps allowed and was an overall minus-11 in those games.
The on-ice save percentage from Caps goalies in those five-on-five minutes is a very bad 87.9 percent which could indicate part of the reason for the immense amount of goals against but it’s also clear that the Caps are making their netminders work incredibly hard with Sandin on the ice. On the flip side, the Caps are shooting over 13 percent in those same minutes so Sandin’s PDO still comes out to an almost even 100.
To put it simply, there is no real conclusion because it’s a 10-game sample.
Sandin arrived to a Capitals team that was already playing pretty terribly. For Caps brass, the exercise is to determine whether or not Sandin’s arrival further exacerbated those issues or if some of the poor defensive numbers above are just a product of his environment.
I personally think massive patience is in order for every young player on the club as the organization navigates a very tricky retooling that will see players like Sandin forced into bigger roles earlier than expected.
Going from being the odd man out on Toronto’s backend and playing less than 18 minutes a night in a bottom-pairing role to suddenly playing 25 minutes a night against the opposing team’s best players cannot have been the easiest transition in the world. It also is definitely not what the Caps have planned for Sandin’s future as that sort of deployment came out of sheer necessity due to injury more than anything else.
Sandin’s role in the near future will probably be a lot more akin to what we saw him do against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night. He skated “just” 19:58 of ice time and was on the team’s second pairing with Nick Jensen. While it is a one-game sample against a purposefully terrible Chicago team, the Caps saw positive differentials at five-on-five in shot attempts (+6), scoring chances (+8), and high-danger chances (+3) with those two over the boards. And, zero goals against.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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