The Toronto Maple Leafs boasts a very talented prospect pool. It was only a matter of time before some of their top names in the minor league would get a chance to graduate to the NHL level.
With the offseason signings that Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas made, there is going to be a major battle as a result of internal competition. With some prospects that are aiming to make the jump from the minors to pros, that competition is going to get fierce as the young guns are looking to prove their worth.
The hope for Rasmus Sandin, Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren is to continue to make significant strides in their development. All three have the potential to be key contributors for this team going forward.
Sandin Showing Signs of Promise
Sandin has the most experience in this group with 37 games played. We know what he’s capable of, as we’ve seen him play in both the NHL and American Hockey League. Early on in the 2020-21 season, Sandin missed a good chunk of the season with a foot injury he sustained in the AHL. After being called up, he made the most of his time as he was able to get into the lineup down the stretch in a third pairing role.
His production increased this past season with four assists in nine games played for a 0.44 point per game average, while seeing third pairing minutes. It’s tough to move up in the lineup with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, but heading into the 2021-22 season, there isn’t any doubt that Sandin would be a regular on the third pairing.
Even though his sample is small with his nine games played this past season, Sandin was very impactful offensively against high-end competition. According to PuckIQ, when he played against elite level competition (16.4% of his total ice time), Sandin had a Corsi For percentage of 60.5%. That’s the most of any Maple Leafs defenseman to play this season, including Reilly who had a CF% of 45.9%. That’s impressive production for a third pairing defenseman with extremely high upside. Sandin also had a five-on-five CF% of 56.9 in the regular season and 57.6% in the postseason.
The fact that Sandin was able to hold his own against top competition is a great sign that his development is heading in the right direction, despite the limited minutes. When both Rielly and Muzzin missed a game against the Vancouver Canucks, Sandin played and thrived in a top-pairing role, displaying great poise and maturity in his game. That audition in that spot serves as reassurance that the top left spot side on defense, will be his at some point.
While he’s had quite a bit of success this past season, the hope for Sandin should be to hold onto that third pairing spot and continue to prove his worth. There isn’t any doubt that he’s going to thrive in that spot and take a major step forward with his development. He is a threat at both 5-on-5 and showed that he is capable of being a solid puck mover and distributor on the power play.
There are signs of progress and promise as potential top pairing defenseman. If he continues to excel and Rielly isn’t re-signed or traded, then the top spot is his for the taking. But for now, we should temper some of those expectations so that he can continue to develop and reach his true potential.
Robertson Motivated to Make the NHL
When you draft a player before he scored 55 goals as an 18-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League, you know you got a great prospect. It’s even more exciting to know that you drafted that player in the second round. Nick Robertson has shown that his potential is limitless as he works to become a future top-six forward.
In 2019-20, Robertson had the best primary points per game (P1/GP) among draft year plus one players (DY+1) with 1.59 and the sixth best even strength primary points per game (EV P1/GP) with 0.91. He also found himself in the record books, having the seventh best goals per game rate in the OHL with 1.196.
Robertson has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his OHL career, being a goal scoring threat in all situations. He even gave Maple Leafs fans a taste of what to expect for years to come when he scored his first career NHL goal in the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Robertson was left off Team USA’s World Junior Championship roster in hopes of preparing to make the Maple Leafs roster for the 2020-21 season. While it looked like he was poised to have made the roster, he sustained a knee injury just two minutes in his first game of the season. He was then assigned to the AHL where he would play in 21 games recording 16 points as a rookie.
With last season being hampered with bad luck, Robertson has a chance to turn the page and start fresh with a new season. While he would’ve liked to stay in the NHL, a stint in the AHL surely helped him for this moment. He has an NHL-caliber shot, high-end offensive instincts and isn’t afraid of getting involved in the dirty areas on the ice despite his 5-foot-9 frame. He should be extra motivated this time around to stay in the NHL.
He has a real shot to battle and steal a spot away from a veteran as a third line player or even a spot on the second line. If Robertson gets stronger in the offseason, there’s a good chance that he could earn an opportunity to be with the Maple Leafs at the start of the season. If he doesn’t, sending him down to the AHL isn’t a bad thing as he’ll be even more determined. If he tears it up and demonstrates major improvements, then a call up will be inevitable for him in the future.
Liljegren Eyeing Final Spot on Defense
Many seem to think that Liljegren’s chance to make the NHL is running out and that couldn’t be further from the truth. First off, he’s only 22 and he was drafted when he just turned 18 in 2017. Second, he immediately made the jump form Sweden to North America to play for the Toronto Marlies. Third, even though he was an offensive minded, puck-moving defenseman, he rounded out his game to provide a more two-way mentality with the ability to be aggressive.
That’s a lot for a player’s development over four pro seasons. However, Liljegren has shown that he was well past the stage of being in the AHL and deserves a chance in the NHL. Liljegren has done a great job of evading sustained pressure from the opposition and breaking up entries and plays in his own end. That play earned him a call-up this season where he played in two games, after recording 11 points in 21 games with the Marlies. While he didn’t record a point in the NHL, he still showed a renewed simplicity in his game offensively and defensively.
He has been consistent with his on-ice efforts, which should be all the more reason for him to try and lock down a spot as a right-handed shot on the Maple Leafs defense. He’s going to be in a fight for a spot though. Even if Travis Dermott assumes the right side– as he can play there as well– Liljegren is going to have to be on his game when training camp opens.
The only thing on Liljegren’s mind is to make the roster and be a factor on the third pairing. Dubas said that he expects him– along with Sandin– to “take hold of opportunities” for next season. Clearly, the GM has his back and the goal for him is to make the NHL. While Dermott is ahead of Liljegren on the depth chart, it’s possible that if Liljegren surpasses him for a roster spot, then Dermott is easily expendable.
Maple Leafs fans have wanted a right-shot, top-four defenseman for some time. Well, Liljegren is just the player the Maple Leafs have in their system that fits the description perfectly.
Sandin, Robertson and Liljegren are all players that have garnered support from Dubas at one point during their development. Now all three have a really great chance to take the next step and prove their value as key pieces going forward. This is their opportunity as they’ve put in the work and effort to try and earn their place in the lineup.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.