Maple Leafs Reaping Rewards of Sandin & Liljegren Pairing

Before the 2021-22 season began, I took a look at three players who would have a major opportunity to excel with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Early on, they are getting an early return on two of their top prospects as Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are major standouts to start the season.

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For years the Maple Leafs have lacked the defensive depth within their organization. While both players needed time to develop, we’re seeing that wait pay off as they’re becoming a reliable fixture on the team’s blueline. If the Maple Leafs are going to have success this season and from here on out, Sandin and Liljegren will be a key reason why.

Instant Chemistry

The two back-to-back, first-round pick defenders seemed to have taken a similar path to the NHL. Both Sandin and Liljegren immediately turned pro after their draft year. Liljegren’s rookie season saw him be a part of the Toronto Marlies Calder Cup championship team in 2017-18 and Sandin had an outstanding 28-point rookie campaign in 2018-19. 

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

The two seemed to have formed instant chemistry when Sandin entered the league. Their development and usage were a big part to their success as prospects, as they were relied on heavily by current Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe when they were with the Marlies. At the time, the team didn’t have a strong balance on defense like they did in the previous seasons. However, Keefe was impressed at how well they adapted and took on more responsibility as young prospects at the pro level.

“This year it’s been all on (Sandin and Liljegren),” Keefe said according to The Star’s Mark Zwolinski back in 2019. “The nice thing about them is they have the confidence and the swagger to take that on.” (from ‘The development of Marlies defencemen Sandin and Liljegren is a story of tough love,’ The Star – 19/11/19) 

It’s not often you see two young prospects take on big minutes at the senior level. Sandin and Liljegren thrived in the roles that they were given and they were consistent. That now has carried over into the NHL.

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Sandin’s development was much quicker as he saw NHL action before Liljegren, playing in 28 games in 2019-20 and nine more in 2020-21. Liljegren did take a little longer to develop, but he improved tremendously each season. He was able to round out his game and be more responsible in his own end, much like Sandin. 

They were given a chance to succeed and in Liljegren’s case this season, challenge for a roster spot. After Justin Holl was made a healthy scratch, Liljegren has made it difficult for Keefe to take him out of the lineup as he’s been consistent with his play. Early on in the 2021-22 season, their early formed chemistry from the American Hockey League has now transferred to the NHL level. 

Strong Vision and Awareness

Quite often, we’ve seen numerous situations where there is a rush chance where Sandin and Liljegren are quickly transitioning to defense. Their defensive play early on shows that they’re capable of shutting things down in their own end and even negate a zone entry. Much like when they were in the AHL, Sandin and Liljegren could very well be Keefe’s go-to defenders in the future. 

“I often know what he’s going to do and he knows the same thing about me,” Liljegren said about Sandin in Zwolinksi’s article. “I also know where he… wants (the puck), so it makes it easier to play with him.”

Before anything unfolds, it’s as if they know exactly how they’re going to approach the situation. Both players have high IQ and awareness that they’re able to think quickly and be on their toes. Whether it’s Sandin or Liljegren, one player will attack the puck carrier while the other comes back to cover the passing option. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There are even times where they’re extremely comfortable switching positions while the play is unfolding. They know they have a defense partner that they can rely on and feel comfortable when they switch and change their position. They have continued to show great awareness, body positioning and active sticks in order to separate the puck from the players and break up an attack. Liljegren has a strong ability in knowing how to effectively close in on the puck carrier and break up entries and chances. 

Playing so many years with the Marlies, they have developed strong chemistry as a reliable third pairing for the Maple Leafs. They do everything so well, that they continue to be a factor every time that they’re on the ice. Even when they’re facing pressure from the opposition, they’re extremely patient and don’t panic with the puck. They’re always in a spot to provide support and help each other out and make a safe pass to each other or their teammates. 

While they’re still young and have made some mistakes, they’ve been fairly consistent for the majority of the season. That kind of responsible play has been something the Maple Leafs have been longing for. They now have two defenseman who serve as reliable defenders in any situation. They’re effective with their communication and awareness that in the future, they’re going to be a very formidable second pair or even top pairing option for the team.

Offensive Game Is At the Forefront

While the production may not be there just yet (four assists for Sandin and one for Liljegren), there’s the potential for them to breakout and produce. That time will come, but their ability to drive the offense from the backend has been a major factor all season. This is what makes both Sandin and Liljegren dangerous. 

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

Here is a look at their underlying metrics together during their five game homestand where they went 4-1. The impact that they had at five-on-five is very impressive.

GameCorsi For % Shots For % 
Detroit Red Wings81.2587.50
Vegas Golden Knights88.2483.33
Tampa Bay Lightning61.5455.56
Boston Bruins31.5842.86
Los Angeles Kings70.5966.67

Throughout that homestand, Sandin and Liljegren did a fantastic job in possessing the puck and help generate offense when they were on the ice. The Bruins were a tough opponent and they did get caught in their own end. They also periodically went up against the Perfection Line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand where they did manage to hold their own and still do a respectable job at defending against them.

Even though the game against the Kings wasn’t their best, they still managed to regroup and get back to what made them successful.

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Both Sandin and Liljegren’s greatest strength lies in their transitional game. They’re both very strong skaters with great mobility and strong passing abilities. They have strong vision to identify their outlets and options to stretch the play up quickly and connect with long breakout passes. Their vision and playmaking abilities allow them to excel in this department to catch the opposition off guard and attempt to get an odd-man rush quickly. Their ability to make accurate and crisp passing is a major boost to a high-flying offense that is going to be even quicker when on the attack. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another reason for their success is their ability to read and join in on the rush to carry the play forward. Sandin has been noticeable all season in this regard. He has great speed and is always finding the open ice for his path to enter the offensive zone with control of the puck. Now we’re seeing more confidence in Liljegren’s ability to jump into the play as well. He was extremely noticeable with a couple of rush chances against the Flyers. Whether it’s carrying it in or distributing it off a for a quick passing play for him to drive to the net, Liljegren is becoming a dangerous offensive threat. 

We’ve seen the strong progression in Sandin and Liljegren’s game as they’re now becoming important players for the Maple Leafs. While they’ve formed a strong third pairing, this is only the beginning. 

Sandin and Liljegren have always had top-four potential written all over them, but seeing their chemistry and how much poise they have when they’re on the ice, they have the skillset to be more than that. This is a pairing that can be a reliable top-pair that can be used in any situation. They’re just scratching the surface as they continue to move up in the lineup.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.

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