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FTB: Leafs depth defense discussions with Sandin, Dermott, and Liljegren

Where do things stand after one game?

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 16: Rasmus Sandin #38 of the Toronto Maple Leafs plays the puck against the Ottawa Senators during the first period at the Scotiabank Arena on October 16, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images

With Justin Holl dealing with some sort of illness, the Toronto Maple Leafs tasked Timothy Liljegren with filling in for him Saturday against the Ottawa Senators. Liljegren was the obvious depth defenseman option to keep after training camp and he had played about half the preseason next to Muzzin, so having him slot into that job seemed like the most logical move. But in doing so, Sheldon Keefe has placed Liljegren above Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott. So does Keefe actually see Liljegren as a top-four option or was this just a situation where style and opportunity overcame seniority?

I took a look at time on ice, because other metrics can tell you some things, but shift starts and shift lengths can very quickly tell you what a coach thinks about a player, and that’s often very useful.

I’ll say in this game Rielly and Brodie took on a moderate step above the rest at 5v5 and in all situations, with Rielly playing over 25 minutes including power play. The top pair played almost 20 minutes at 5v5 in 26 shifts. Muzzin was next, playing 17 minutes in 22 shifts. Liljegren was last among defensemen in ice time, playing 13 minutes in 19 shifts. By comparison, Sandin played the same number of shifts, 19, but for 15.5 minutes, and Dermott got 15 minutes of work in only 16 shifts.

Okay, what does this all mean. First and foremost, Sandin and Dermott were consistently taking long shifts, upwards of a minute on average. That could mean they hung around on the ice for longer offensive shifts, or they got hemmed in their own zone a lot. From watching the game, I’d say a bit of column A and a bit of column B.

In stark contrast, Liljegren was on a very tight leash, averaging no more than 40 seconds per shift, so while he only missed four shifts (including 5v6). They were: a post-PP shift with Sandin where Muzzin swapped with the fourth forward, a post-PP shift with Brodie after Rielly came off, and a third period shift with Rielly after the 3-1 goal where Rielly was basically triple-shifted, and finally in the final minute where Muzzin was double-shifted with Rielly after playing with Liljegren in the second last minute.

Apart from a couple post-PP shifts and not giving the rookie the final shift of the game, Liljegren was pretty much in lockstep with Muzzin all night. And while Keefe probably wanted Liljegren off the ice first when doing a line change, the fact that the top-four wasn’t a top-three until the final minute of the game is a good sign that the Leafs trust Liljegren, at least against Ottawa.

The boxscore TOI scared me a little when I first saw it, but after looking at how and when those disparities happened, I don’t see it as a lack of confidence in the rookie Liljegren. He played well all night and his stats showed it. I think what’s most interesting for me is that Sandin got one offensive-zone shift with Muzzin and Dermott didn’t get a lick of time in the top four on a night when one of the regulars was out. Sure, that could be Keefe’s devotion to keeping the pairings intact because he values what the third pair can do offensively (Dermott was 13-16 in shot share), but there’s been a very clear roof over the head of Dermott when it comes to top-four opportunities this season and this game was another example of that.

Liljegren didn’t play great, but he was good enough to get all his regular shifts. If he can keep this up for however long Holl is out, I think it would be unjust to not have him in the lineup as a regular when the roster is fully healthy. And while the Leafs have their deployment strategy for the third pair, Liljegren is no slouch with the puck (see parts of this game and four seasons with the Marlies), and to me having a surrogate second-pairing guy in the lineup over the can-only-be-sheltered third pair guy is better for the team.

I famously wasn’t a fan of Sandin-Liljegren as a pairing on the Marlies because it seemed like a waste of Liljegren’s skills when Sandin did all the puck work. With the way Sandin plays in the AHL, he kinda just goes off and does special things in the neutral and offensive zones, so his partner (Liljegren) has to be the stay-at-home guy, which was a big contrast to his commanding presence on the ice when Sandin wasn’t around. But maybe I’ll settle into something more fair on the Leafs under different circumstances. I wonder if Kyle Dubas agrees with me, but has to figure out a certain transaction first. There have been rumblings, murmerings, and public calls from Keefe for Dermott to get his crap together. I can’t help but wonder if time is running out on that relationship.

Poll

Choose an option (I’m not going to tell you for what)

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    Rasmus Sandin
    (201 votes)
  • 20%
    Travis Dermott
    (88 votes)
  • 32%
    Timothy Liljegren
    (140 votes)
429 votes total Vote Now

Various Leafs and Branches

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Also, can I just speak for all Leafs fans in saying, “oh my god new teams to play against!” It’s been so long. Including preseason and postseason, the Leafs have played the Habs or Sens 20 out of 21 times dating back to May 1st of 2021 — a full 180 days.

In prospect news, the Toronto Marlies won their season opener 5-1 over the Manitoba Moose. Josh Ho-Sang scored two b-e-a-utiful goals in the win.

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Brigstew has several highlights from watching Matthew Knies, Veeti Miettinen, and Ty Voit last night. I peppered in a couple of the better ones for you.

And finally, Alexis Lafrenière scoring a game-winning goal against the Habs.