The Toronto Maple Leafs are set when it comes to their top-4 on defense but beyond that, it’s game-on in the battle for the remaining jobs coming into training camp.
Armed with that knowledge, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, the Leafs’ 2017 and 2018 first-round picks, have their sights firmly set on earning jobs to start the regular season.
“It’s my third year here and I obviously want to make a spot on the roster, do a few NHL games this year,” Liljegren said after a pre-camp skate on Wednesday. “I want to take with me what I did last year at the end of the season and into training camp this year. For young guys like me and Rasmus, with Dermott out at the start of the year, there’s a spot to be filled and that’s good for young guys like us to come into camp with that knowledge.”
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Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin joined by Tyson Barrie, who was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche over the summer, and Cody Ceci, who spent last season with the Ottawa Senators. Travis Dermott will miss at least the first month of the season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Veterans Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl and Kevin Gravel will also be in the mix for spots on the bottom pairing, but Sandin and Liljegren unquestionably have the most upside. If they show they’re ready, they stand to make the biggest impact.
Sandin impressed in his rookie season last year with Toronto’s AHL-affiliate Marlies, putting up 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 44 games. By the time the Calder Cup Playoffs rolled around last season, the 5-11, 187-pound blueliner was playing big minutes for the Marlies on their top defense pairing and had 10 assists in 13 playoff games.
Now heading into camp, Sandin, 19, said he’s improved a lot over the summer and is ready to push for a spot on the opening night roster.
“That’s for sure my goal [to make the team],” Sandin said. “I want to do my best all the time and show what I can do. They saw me last year and I’m trying to show more now, where I’ve improved this summer and see where that leads. I feel like my strength is better, I feel a lot stronger, I feel faster, I feel better overall I think.
“I was happy with how I did all of last year. I got a ton of ice time, especially in the playoffs. I was happy with how I played overall and how I developed as a player.”
Unlike Sandin, Liljegren’s transition to the North American game through his first season and a half was not as easy-going, but he found his comfort level this year. After returning from a 10-week absence due to an high-ankle sprain he suffered in mid-February, he finished the year playing top pairing minutes alongside Sandin.
Coach Sheldon Keefe said once Liljegren returned, he was outstanding, killing rushes coming through the neutral zone and showcasing strong positioning, and ultimately took significant steps forward.
“When I got [injured], I spent a lot of time in the gym and with skills coaches on the ice. When I got back I just played relaxing hockey, didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself,” Liljegren said. “I just enjoyed playing the game and I think that was why I played better in the second half of the year. I would say that’s the best I felt since coming over to North America. The mental game is a huge part of hockey and playing more relaxed helped me a lot.”
The 20-year-old defenseman, who had 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in 43 games and five assists in 13 playoff games, also said that he’s progressing and evolving his game as time goes on.
“Just to play good defense and when you do, you have space to be creative too,” Liljegren said. “I think last year I improved my defensive game a lot and that made me more comfortable being out there. Confidence has a lot to do with whether you make the team or not. I have pretty good confidence coming into camp now and I’ve felt pretty good the last couple of days here.”
Keefe was impressed by the poise showed by Sandin during his rookie season, calling him a unique player that can control the tempo of the game, which shows his potential to be a strong player at the NHL level.
“I think that’s one of my strengths,” Sandin agreed. “I can bring the game down to a pace that I’m comfortable with and I feel that I’m a guy who can adjust my game to the way the game is being played, that’s one of my strengths as well.”
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The two Swedish blueliners have become good friends off the ice, which could make the competition for limited NHL spots somewhat awkward. However, to Sandin, it’s the exact opposite, even though only one of them could earn a spot with the Leafs.
“It’s a good thing we have each other to compete with, we’re driving each other as well,” Sandin said. “We want the best for each other but it’s very fun to have him beside me and competing for a spot. We both would be very happy for each other’s success.”