Improving the Maple Leafs’ defense has been a focal point in Toronto for quite some time now, but there is some interesting talent bubbling up from the AHL; mainly in the form of Swedes. Alongside older “prospects” Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, the Toronto Marlies have two high-end teenagers from the Scandinavian nation in Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. The two blueliners were taken in consecutive first rounds by the Maple Leafs, with Liljegren tabbed 17th overall in 2017 and Sandin going 29th overall last summer.
Liljegren spent last year with the Marlies as well, helping Toronto win its first-ever Calder Cup championship. Sandin, meanwhile, was playing in the OHL at the time with the high-flying Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after coming over earlier in the season from Rogle in Sweden.
Still 18, Sandin has nonetheless shown a lot of promise this year while playing his rookie season with the Marlies. So what kind of progression has there been?
“I don’t know if ‘progression’ is the right word, because frankly he’s been good from the moment he got here,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. “Getting healthy and staying healthy has been his problem; he was hurt at the start, then he got hurt at the world juniors. But when he’s been in the lineup he has played with confidence and poise. We’ve been able to use him in all situations and with different partners and he has dealt with all of it really well.”
One of his frequent partners has been Liljegren, giving the Marlies a kid duo on defense that really clicks. Though Sandin is a very accomplished puck carrier, he can also be the conscience on the back end when Liljegren wants to wheel up the ice. Sandin played a similar role internationally with Sweden at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka, with future Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Adam Boqvist as his partner. Liljegren’s not quite as dynamic as Boqvist, but he’s still pretty good when it comes to rushing.
“We have a lot of fun out there,” Sandin said. “He reads me and I read him pretty well, in most situations. We find each other.”
The ability to push the puck in the right direction is the most obvious benefit of the Sandin-Liljegren pairing and while their youth sometimes leads to turnovers at inopportune times (in a recent win over Manitoba, a Liljegren gaffe led to a Jimmy Oligny breakaway goal), that’s precisely why they are in the AHL right now: to hone their gifts.
“It’s two young guys with a lot of skill and a lot of really good sense,” Keefe said. “At times they make mistakes, but that’s part of the program, part of them finding their way – what works and what doesn’t as they adjust to the pro level. The fact they’re putting themselves in spots to have the puck as much as they are is a very good thing.”
Most impressive about Sandin right now is his poise with the puck. He demonstrates a patience that you don’t often see with a first-year pro defenseman and that allows for plays in the offensive zone to survive longer.
“You have a little more time than you actually think out there,” Sandin said. “Maybe sometimes I have too much patience, but I’m just playing my game and trying not to think about it.”
Off the ice, Sandin is adjusting to his new life admirably as well. Like many Swedes, he had already been living on his own since he was young – in his case, 15 years old. Having a billet family in Sault Ste. Marie was nice, but Sandin knows how to take care of himself.
“I do cook,” he said. “I’m a pretty good cook actually, to be honest.”
His signature dish? I swear I’m not making this up: homemade Swedish meatballs. But which language does he use on the ice when he’s with Liljegren?
“Both, whatever comes up first in our minds, I guess,” he said. “If we talk Swedish with each other too much, we might talk Swedish with the other guys and they won’t know what we’re saying, so we’re trying to keep it in English. But we’ll help each other in Swedish.”
Sounds like a pretty good strategy.