Button shares how Sandin projects immediately and long-term
TORONTO – The Maple Leafs’ already battered blueline was dealt another significant blow Monday with news that top-pairing defenceman Morgan Rielly will miss at least eight weeks with a fractured foot.
But in the face of that adversity – coupled with the previous loss of top-four defender Jake Muzzin to a broken foot in December – the Leafs are about to find out exactly what they’re made of.
“The elite teams in the league don't get fazed by these types of situations and we want to be an elite team,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe on Tuesday. “We believe we are an elite team and have the ability to take big steps as a group. It's a really good opportunity for us, individually and collectively, to do just that.”
To start filling the void, Toronto recalled rookie defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies prior to facing the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday.
Sandin will skate on the Leafs’ third pairing with Cody Ceci, while Travis Dermott and Justin Holl move up to being Toronto’s top pair. Martin Marincin steps into Rielly’s vacated spot next to Tyson Barrie.
Keefe emphasized that “Barrie is a guy we need more from,” particularly given his nine years of NHL experience essentially make Barrie the veteran of the group. Barrie has produced 24 points (four goals, 20 assists) in 46 games this season with a minus-6 rating, but acknowledged he’s capable of elevating his game.
“I have to do a good job of continuing to push the pace offensively but then stepping up my defensive game as well,” he said. “I’m focusing more on that and then maybe trying to help where I can in areas that maybe Mo would have. [Marincin and I] are going to look to move the puck and get it into our forwards’ hands and I'll be jumping in and we'll be looking to use each other on the blueline.”
The adjustment to Toronto's pairings means Barrie won’t see as many top matchups as he did skating with Rielly, a responsibility that will now fall primarily onto Dermott and Holl.
Keefe only united the former Marlies teammates last week, hoping it would jump-start Dermott’s lagging season. Through 33 games, the third-year pro has managed eight points (four goals, four assists) and been caught too often pinching down low, to the detriment of his team.
Meanwhile, Holl has been arguably the Leafs’ steadiest defenceman all year, and Keefe is hoping some of that consistency rubs off on his new partner as Dermott gets used to facing tougher competition.
“They're obviously more skilled, bigger, more dangerous guys, but you kind of psych yourself up for it too,” Dermott said of his new role. “If you’ve got good support and you're playing well with your team, it's just hockey. I think Holl has been taking good care of me, kind of easing me into it. I'm learning a lot and going forward I feel like we're getting better and better. So we'll see how tonight goes.”
Keefe said Dermott will also see more time on the penalty kill, where Rielly has averaged 2:00 per game. Sandin will also be given an opportunity on special teams as he makes his return to NHL action for the first time since October.
The 19-year-old played six games with the Leafs to start this season before returning to the Marlies. Sandin also had a standout performance at the 2020 World Juniors (three goals, 10 points) for Sweden that earned him the tournament's top defenceman honours.
Sandin skated into two games for the Marlies last weekend after getting back from Europe, and is ready to translate all that he’s learned onto NHL ice.
“I think I gained some confidence since getting sent down and going to World Juniors,” he said. “I feel prepared and I'm looking forward to tonight. [Keefe told me] to play good tonight. He just wants me to play my game and be confident out there. I think we're both looking forward to tonight to see how we do.”
That ability to insert different players and potentially not miss a beat is what makes Rielly most hopeful the Leafs will be fine without him. While leaning against crutches, the blueliner detailed on Tuesday that “our whole team would have done” what he did, playing through Sunday’s 8-4 loss to Florida on a foot he broke blocking a shot in the first period.
It will be a “few weeks for sure” before he’s able to put pressure on the foot again, and until then, Rielly sees potential in Toronto’s new-look blueline to succeed.
“If you look at the players that we have healthy and available, there's a lot of talent, lots of character,” he said. “There's a lot there. To lose one piece isn't a big deal; we have lots of guys that can come in and take responsibility and play well. It’s time for guys to accept that responsibility and prove [themselves].”
Keefe said Muzzin might be back in skates as early as Wednesday but didn’t provide a timetable for his return, so there’s still a long road ahead for the Leafs in their new reality.
“We just want to prove it to ourselves and everyone that we can do this now, in this time,” said Dermott. “Prove that when we lose some key guys like Muzz and Mo that we won't just fold. And then when they get back, we'll just be that much stronger.”