Maple Leafs’ Defense Troubles Signal Alarm Bells

Many fans and critics alike often criticize the Toronto Maple Leafs as being a poor defensive team. With star power like Auston Matthews and John Tavares constantly at the forefront, the group’s defensive follies become often overlooked by the pure talent and goalscoring put on display by the forwards.

However, when these forwards don’t show up to play, that’s when things can get ugly, as many Maple Leafs’ fans have surely seen.

One can certainly remember crucial errors that have been made defensively that have cost the Maple Leafs incredibly important games in the past — most notably both Game 7 defeats at the hands of the Boston Bruins in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and some questionable plays from one Jake Gardiner.

YouTube player

Moves have since been made by the Maple Leafs organization in an attempt to correct the defensive issues they once faced. Gardiner is no longer a Maple Leaf and the acquisition of Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings, as well as Tyson Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche and Cody Ceci from the Ottawa Senators, were all great defensive additions occurring within the last year. Finally, it appeared that for the 2019-20 season, the Maple Leafs might have finally solved the problems plaguing the team’s back end.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But then came the injuries. Defenseman Morgan Rielly is now out of the lineup due to a fractured foot, seeing the Maple Leafs without two of their most valuable defenders. Muzzin is already listed as week-to-week after suffering from his own broken foot and it is unknown when exactly he will return to the lineup.

In light of these injuries and to help remedy the problem, the Maple Leafs have called up Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin from the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Toronto Marlies in relief.

Are Liljegren and Sandin NHL Ready?

So far, the Maple Leafs’ prospects look quite promising, to say the least. Both players are rising Swedish talent who are coming off an impressive bronze medal performance at the World Junior Championship. 

This won’t be the first time 19-year-old Sandin has represented the blue and white, either. He already played in six games at the beginning of the 2019-20 season before being sent back to the AHL. His on-ice play during this time was not disastrous by any means and he amassed two points during those six games. However, it was ultimately decided by the Maple Leafs organization that the rookie was not yet ready for the intensity of the NHL and instead would be better suited to play another year in the minors.

Liljegren, on the other hand, has yet to suit up for a game in a Maple Leafs’ uniform and so it will be interesting to see how he performs when he plays in his first game. In the AHL he is playing quite well, tallying four goals and 20 assists for 24 points in 33 games this season.

Timothy Liljegren, NHL Draft, Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren has drawn comparisons to Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If he can convert that amazing point total to some production in the NHL, I believe he can be a valuable asset for the Maple Leafs. Of course, the NHL is a different playing surface from the minor leagues. It’s a tougher and stronger game out there. Both Liljegren and Sandin will need to make the correct adjustments, but if they can, I’m sure they will find success.

Sandin Impressive in First Game Back

In Sandin’s first game back after being recalled on Jan. 13, I’d say he definitely defied most expectations. He matched his point total of six games in a two-assist showing against the New Jersey Devils, which saw the Maple Leafs win convincingly 7-4.

Sandin definitely deserves some recognition for his play in this game as he made some elegant passes along the blue line and was not afraid to shoot the puck either, with one of his shots being tipped home for a nice goal by Tavares.

Toronto Maple Leafs Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

It is this kind of play and confidence from a defenseman that makes a statement to the team. This game could very likely put Sandin on the Maple Leafs’ radar and if he can continue to perform and put up points, a contract may very well be waiting for him. However, there are potentially some issues with Sandin’s contract, which you can read about in-depth in an article from The Hockey Writers’ Old Prof.

Time will tell how these two young defenders will impact the Maple Leafs, but I personally believe they are going to do alright. 

What do you think about Sandin and Liljegren’s arrival in Toronto? Will they be able to fill the shoes of Rielly and Muzzin? Let us know in the comments section below.