With Injuries Mounting, Maple Leafs Should Place Faith in Two Young Swedes

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So far, The Leafs have yet to have the start to the season that was expected of them. They have not been objectively good enough in 2022/2023.  However, there is no denying the effect injuries have had on Toronto’s start to the campaign. The losses of their starting goaltenders and missing Timothy Liljegren to start the year put them in a bind. But now, with long-term injuries for two-thirds of the left side of their defence, with Jake Muzzin gone for the year, and T.J. Brodie going on IR, the Leafs will face their toughest test yet. Rumours have been swirling around the Leafs’ interest in Jacob Chycrun, amongst other potential trade options, but General Manager Kyle Dubas shrugged those away. Dubas instead focused on the aforementioned Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin as the ones who will be looked upon to take on more responsibility on the backend.

This is the necessary step for Toronto, not only because this iteration of the Leafs hasn’t yet shown they deserve support in the trade market but also because Dubas and Co. must find out if Sandin and Liljegren are ready to sink or swim. Both players signed identical two-year, $2.8 million deals in the summers, and their careers as Leafs are destined to be linked forever. In addition, both have flashed elite-level traits throughout their short time in the NHL. However, both have also, at times, struggled with the speed and little margin for error nature of hockey at the highest level.

In theory, the two are a match made in heaven on the Leaf blueline. Apart from the fact they are around the same age and both hail from Sweden, one is a lefty, the other a righty. Their games seemingly mesh together exceptionally well. Sandin, an all-action, physical defenceman with high hockey IQ, and Liljegren, a more responsible but still superbly talented player in his own right. They both are capable of being one-man breakouts and, simultaneously, can pick out any pass necessary.

Some good highlights of the two together last year

When either one has struggled at the NHL level, it has mostly been down to one of two factors. The first is playing on the wrong side, which has been an issue for Sandin this year. He just does not look comfortable right now playing on the right. It makes sense. He is a young defenceman still adapting to the NHL. Everything is twice as hard on your opposite side, especially early in the adjustment process.

The second factor is playing with a partner you do not mesh well with. For Sandin, this has been Justin Holl; for Liljegren, last year, it was Jake Muzzin. Neither Holl nor Muzzin is a particularly strong skater, nor do they have high-level puck skills. This meant that nearly all the responsibility with the puck would fall to Sandin or Liljegren in these pairings, and that is a lot to deal with as young defencemen.

It has worked out well so far when Sandin and Liljegren have played together. Their numbers as a pairing are staggeringly good. In 260 minutes together as a pairing at five on five, they have controlled 65 percent of the expected goals and 60 percent of the scoring chances. Just as they were starting to really hit their stride last year, Sandin got hurt. Now, some context must be added to these numbers. They were deployed very favourably by Sheldon Keefe, being put out almost solely on offensive zone draws and against the opposition’s weaker lines. Nonetheless, you can only play who is in front of you, and the numbers are not only elite but are a large enough sample size for us to conclude that it was not a lucky stretch of games.

However, under current circumstances, Sheldon Keefe cannot hide the pairing. He will be forced to utilize them in all situations at any point in the game. Back to what I was saying about sinking or swimming… If Sandin and Liljegren can continue to dominate when they are on the ice together in more challenging conditions, it will prove once and for all just how valuable these two are to the Leafs for years to come. This is precisely why both players signed bridge deals for less money than they probably could have forced out of the Leafs. They knew the opportunities would come for them to show just how good they were, and then Toronto would have no choice but to pay up. Although, I am sure the Leafs won’t have an issue paying the two Swedes if it means they both develop to be the mainstays of Toronto’s top four.

Now, if they fail to swim and instead sink (which I think is unlikely due to how talented they are and all the evidence to support the contrary), but IF they do sink! Then, at least, the Leafs will have figured it out as early as possible and can go from there.

You may be reading this and saying, ‘Are we really going to put that much stock into what is likely just two weeks of performances from two defencemen who are only 23 and 22, respectively?’ This is a fair question, but I will argue that these two weeks are the most important of the Leafs’ season. Everyone knows your odds of playing spring hockey are pretty low if you are out of a playoff spot by American Thanksgiving. So this two-week stretch will be more crucial than you might think. It is time for Sandin and Liljegren to show how good they really are and finally prove all of us on Twitter right because that is all that matters.

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