Young defence leading Marlies on playoff run

Every once in a while, when they’re playing together, defencemen Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin allow themselves to think of what life might be like as a tandem with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And why not? The Leafs’ last two first-round picks — Liljegren in 2017, Sandin last summer — played together in training camp with the Leafs, and for much of the season with the Toronto Marlies. “That would be so much fun to play with him up there,” Liljegren said.

Timothy Liljegren, left, and Rasmus Sandin were paired together in training camp with the Leafs, and have spent plenty of time together with the Marlies this season.
Timothy Liljegren, left, and Rasmus Sandin were paired together in training camp with the Leafs, and have spent plenty of time together with the Marlies this season.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

The two have made huge strides this season in their development.

“I’m a lot more comfortable out there … playing against big players,” Sandin said. “I got a lot more ice time, and that helps a lot too.”

Liljegren, finishing his second year in the AHL, is taking on greater responsibility, adding penalty killing to his resumé.

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“Just trying to learn every day,” he said. “I’m gaining confidence in the defensive zone. Feels good. My positioning, knowing when to (stay) and when to go. Last year, I felt like I was running around too much and not saving my energy.”

The quality of their play, says Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe, is a big reason the Marlies made the Calder Cup playoffs, much less advanced to the second round, which begins Wednesday night against the Cleveland Monsters at the Coca-Cola Coliseum.

“The guys have proven to be capable,” Keefe said. “I’ve said it before that, certainly in Sandin’s and Liljegren’s case … if not for their development and their ability to take on extra responsibility throughout the season, we’re probably not even playing in the playoffs. Those guys are huge parts of our team.”

The two were put together as the top pair as injuries befell the Marlies, namely to Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman. But they are apart as the second round begins. Liljegren remains the top right-handed defenceman, playing with Rosen. Sandin is with Mac Hollowell, who joined the Marlies after his season in Sault Ste. Marie ended. Hollowell, a fourth-round pick last year, and Sandin played together last year in junior.

It’s a remarkable turn of events that the Marlies’ blue line is so young, anchored by the 25-year-old Rosen. Liljegren is 19, Sandin is 18, Hollowell is 20. Borgman, 23, and Vincent LoVerde, 30, are the other pair.

“Hollowell’s addition, we think, is a positive one,” Keefe said. “We do have other options if we feel like we need it. But we like our group here, with Rosen’s addition obviously helps us greatly. But just the way that our six defence played in Game 3 against Rochester, the way they stuck through this week in practice, we feel really good about the group.”

The defence is not just young but a bit small, with Liljegren the tallest of the three at six feet. Sandin is five-foot-11, Hollowell five-foot-10. Their strength is their mobility; none is afraid to join the rush.

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“Sandin, Liljegren and Hollowell are not the biggest guys, but all three have the ability to move the puck very well and very efficiently. The better we distribute the puck among our team, it means we will defend a little bit less,” Keefe said. “If we can defend less, it’s an advantage for us. At the same time, when it does come time to defend, I think Liljegren has been as good as any guy we’ve had.

“There are no easy shifts. He’s defended really well. Broke up a lot of rushes. His body positioning has been great. Sandin’s been good at that as well. Hollowell has done a good job of knowing his spots.”

As has been the case the last few years, the Marlies have the eyes of Toronto’s hockey world on them as the calendar turns to May.

“It’s fun,” Liljegren said. “You always want to go as far as you can in the playoffs.”

Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran