'Our greatest challenge': Keefe meets with leaders on breaking bad defensive habits
TORONTO – It’s been a brutal couple of weeks for the Maple Leafs’ blueline, first with the loss of Jake Muzzin to a broken foot on Dec. 29 and then Monday’s news that Morgan Rielly will be out at least eight weeks with a fractured foot of his own.
But Muzzin was back on the ice Wednesday for the first time since sustaining that injury, spending about 30 minutes in a session with skating consultant Barb Underhill. Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t have an update on how the workout went, but is hopeful Muzzin can return on the other side of Toronto’s bye week and the NHL All-Star Break when the Leafs pick up against Nashville on Jan. 27.
“That's what they’ve talked about as being a potential target for us,” Keefe said after the Leafs’ practice on Wednesday. “Obviously, how things go between now and then will dictate that. My understanding is that he's going to stick around [in Toronto] and get working over the break. So we'll just have to see where he's at then.”
In the meantime, the setbacks Toronto suffered have catapulted the club’s future on defence into the present, starting with 19-year-old rookie Rasmus Sandin.
Recalled from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies on Monday afternoon after Rielly’s CT scan revealed a fracture, Sandin produced a two-assist performance in Tuesday’s 7-4 win over New Jersey, which was his first NHL action since skating in the Leafs’ first six games of the season.
“He is just comfortable; he just plays hockey and does what he does best,” said Keefe, who coached Sandin with the Marlies. “And he's going to have ups and downs like all players do, but we're going to help him push through all that kind of stuff. Right now, he's going to get a great opportunity and yesterday he did good on it.”
Mike Babcock behind Toronto’s bench when Sandin was last in the NHL, and the young blueliner averaged just 12:13 of ice time per game. He was returned to the Marlies and continued to excel, eventually joining Team Sweden at the 2020 World Juniors. He produced three goals and 10 points in seven games en route to winning top defenceman honours for the tournament.
All of those experiences have been building blocks for Sandin, and he’s come back to the Leafs a more dynamic player. Keefe had him on the ice for 16:12 in Tuesday’s game, including 1:53 on the second power-play unit.
“This year with the World Juniors and going down to the Marlies, playing a lot of minutes in all situations during the games, I think that's where I gained the most confidence,” Sandin said. “Getting back up here now, I know all the players a little bit more and the systems have changed a little bit, which I think is good for me.”
Sandin’s blueline partner, Cody Ceci, can see the changes in his game already from when the two first skated together briefly in training camp.
“He’s always got his head up now, so he can make a lot of great plays like you saw last night,” Ceci said. “He's a lot of fun to play with. I think our two games complement each other. I can let him do his thing offensively and I'll try and go back for most of the pucks and lay the body for our pairing.”
For now at least, Keefe is pleased with the Leafs’ new-look blueline, which means rookie Timothy Liljegren may have to wait to make his NHL debut.
Liljegren, 20, was recalled from the Marlies on Tuesday as an extra body, and Keefe was non-committal about whether he would play in the two games before Toronto adjourns for its break. But Keefe did say Liljegren is “next man up” should the Leafs’ require another addition.
“I thought that Lily had a great practice today and that's really for me right now what he's here for,” Keefe said. “To get that experience, be on the ice with our guys, so that when his opportunity does come he's all the more prepared for it.”
Given the uncertainty Toronto still faces on the backend, there’s a chance GM Kyle Dubas pulls the trigger on a trade that would shake things up once again.
TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie reported in Tuesday’s Insider Trading that the Leafs have been fielding calls from teams around the league offering defencemen in a potential trade, and Toronto has been making calls of their own. In the short term, McKenzie said the Leafs’ priority is a left-shot defencemen to fill the void left by Rielly higher in the lineup.
This is a time of year when Dubas has been active before, orchestrating the trade for Muzzin with the L.A. Kings during last season’s bye week. McKenzie also noted the Leafs have approached Muzzin, who is in the final year of his contract, about an extension, but those discussions are in the preliminary stages.
In the long term, McKenzie reported Toronto is looking for right-side depth, which could require moving a forward like Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson or Alex Kerfoot – all young players with team-friendly contracts – for a defenceman who helps bolster the blueline for seasons to come.
While those decisions are sorted out up top, Sandin is relishing every minute he gets to prove himself again on NHL ice, wherever the opportunity takes him this season.
“I'm just thinking pretty much about playing the next game and practicing as good as I can, and to just take it day by day the whole time,” he said. “I think everything can always be a little bit better, so I'm just trying to play as good as I can.”