What Maple Leafs can expect from Sandin, Liljegren in expanded roles on the blueline

The Hockey Central panel breaks down some ways the Toronto Maple Leafs can replace injured top defenceman Morgan Rielly who was placed on long-term injured reserve, including looking at some potential trade targets.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence is in disarray.

Already without T.J. Brodie (oblique injury) and Jake Muzzin (cervical spine injury), the Leafs placed No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve after he hurt his knee in a collision with New York Islanders forward Kyle Palmieri on Monday evening. Rielly will miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days.

“Are you a better team when you have Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie or Jake Muzzin in the lineup? Of course you’re a better team,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters Tuesday. “It’s not the first time a team has dealt with injuries to key players. It’s not the first time our team has dealt with injuries to key players.”

As the Leafs begin a four-game road trip Wednesday in New Jersey, Mark Giordano and Justin Holl will handle top-pairing duties, with Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren slotting in behind them.

While discussing the injuries to Brodie and Muzzin last week, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said that losing two big-minute defenders would provide Sandin, 22, and Liljegren, 23, with an opportunity to prove they can take on tougher assignments. Rielly’s absence only magnifies that.

Last season, Sandin and Liljegren performed well against lighter competition at even strength, but the opposite has been true through 20 games this season. That is why they have spent most of their ice time paired with veterans — Sandin with Giordano and Liljegren with Rielly.

One recent shift highlighted Sandin and Liljegren’s limitations as a pair in their own end. Early in the second period against the Bufflao Sabres on Saturday, Sandin and Liljegren were on the ice for a defensive-zone faceoff. Both failed to recover loose pucks along the boards — Liljegren on the left-wing wall and Sandin in the corner. The Sabres maintained possession down low, leading Sandin to take a hooking penalty. Sandin and Liljegren did not take another shift together for the rest of the period.

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The pair had a solid outing against the Islanders on Monday, though, controlling a whopping 95.9 per cent of expected goals in 10:45 of ice time. 

“I think (Monday) was a big step for both me and Timothy playing together,” said Sandin, who led the Leafs with 25 possession-driving plays. “We did some things really well that we can (carry into) the next game. It’s starting to come along. I think we managed the puck pretty well. We broke the puck out well. We were creative out there.”

Sandin has been hard on himself this season, but there are reasons for optimism. Although his defensive-zone giveaway to Sidney Crosby last week got plenty of attention, Sandin’s 11.4 per cent turnover rate on 809 touches ranks tied for 13th out of 216 defencemen with at least 100 minutes played. He is also good at moving the puck through the neutral zone, completing 84.8 per cent of his passes — 11th among qualified defencemen.

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Liljegren, meanwhile, has made modest gains defensively. He appears to be reading plays better, posting a 96.4 per cent pass block success rate — up from 87 per cent a season ago.

Giordano and Holl should do most of the heavy lifting defensively, but Sandin and Liljegren will still have to handle higher-caliber opponents while the Leafs’ top blue-liners are on the shelf. Dubas made it known that Sandin’s and Liljegren’s play will determine how active he will be in the trade market. A lot is riding on their performance.

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