TORONTO — Like all good defencemen, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren begin licking their chops when they spot an opening on ice.
And a rather large one has presented itself this September in Leafland. Who wants to seize it?
While the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs’ top two defence pairings are essentially set, general manager Kyle Dubas says the Nos. 5, 6 and 7 slots are jump ball. Go grab it.
Travis Dermott’s shoulder injury will conservatively keep him out of the lineup through October, so there are cherished minutes on the bottom pairing just waiting to be filled.
A crowded knot of cap-friendly 20-somethings whose NHL experience ranges from modest to nonexistent — none will earn more than $900,000 this season — will battle for those spots in camp.
Trade acquisition Ben Harpur’s notable size, familiarity killing penalties alongside Cody Ceci and willingness to do the dirty work should give him a leg-up in earning one of those stalls in the real dressing room, but Jordan Schmaltz, Martin Marincin and Justin Holl will be in the mix.
Much more intriguing are the kids, fellow first-round picks and Swedish talents–turned–Marlies standouts Liljegren, 20, and Sandin, 19.
“With Dermott out the start of the year, there’s a spot to be filled. It’s good for young guys like us to come into camp with that knowledge,” said Liljegren, 2017’s 17th-overall selection.
Following a scrimmage in which they were partnered up against a moustachioed Auston Matthews and Co., both Liljegren and Sandin stated clearly Wednesday that making Toronto’s opening-night roster is their focus.
“That’s for sure my goal. I want to do my best all the time and show what I can do,” said Sandin. “I feel a lot stronger. I feel faster. I feel better overall. It’s been a good summer.
“I feel confident about myself, and we’ll see where that leads.”
Thus far, it’s led Sandin to a head-turning AHL rookie campaign in which he put up 28 points in 44 regular-season games, despite battling injury, then another 10 assists in 13 playoff contests during which coach Sheldon Keefe cranked up his ice time.
Keefe lauds Sandin for his maturity and poise, his ability to control the tempo during his shifts.
“I can bring the game down to a pace I’m comfortable with. I’m also a guy who can adjust my game to how that game is being played — that’s one of my strengths as well,” said Sandin, taking note of Miro Heiskanen’s instant impact as a teenage D-man in Dallas. “Hopefully I can be one of those guys, too.”
A role player in the Marlies’ run to the Calder Cup in 2018, Liljegren believes a longer summer and increased workout schedule has better prepared him to make the cut this fall. (Being a righty doesn’t hurt his cause either.) And he’s encouraged by finishing 2018-19 much stronger than he began.
Ironically, Liljegren points to his high ankle sprain as the reason. The injury allowed him time away from the grind to hit the gym, study film and reset mentally.
“The mental part is a huge part of hockey,” Liljegren said. “Confidence has a lot to do with whether you make the team or not. I think I have pretty good confidence coming into camp now.”
His game broke through in such a way that Keefe has begun using film of Liljegren’s positioning and decision-making as examples for prospects on the right way to play.
“Play good defence and then you have space to be creative too” is the main lesson Liljegren has absorbed in North America. “Last year I improved my defensive game a lot, and I think that made me more comfortable on the ice.”
The two Swedes knew each other casually in Europe, being only a draft year apart and spending time with Rogle. But it’s here in Toronto where they’ve formed a bond on the ice and off, sparking chemistry as duo — albeit one that could be broken up (temporarily) if only one of them makes the NHL later this month.
“It’s a good thing we have each other to compete with. We’re driving each other,” Sandin said.
“We want the best for each other. It’s very fun to have him beside me competing for a spot, and I think we’ll both be very happy for each other’s success.”