In case you haven’t heard, Rasmus Sandin is a Toronto Maple Leaf. In what became easily the biggest story of camp these last two weeks and stretching back over the last year, the 2018 first-rounder shot up the organization like a rocket to nab a NHL roster spot and will make his debut a couple days from now. And the discussion around him isn’t just “Can he stick all season?”, it’s more so about how far into his potential can he dig right now to make a real difference. To put it another way, I’m not sure I’d bet against him playing top four minutes within 20 games. It’s been that kind of camp.
But with Sandin’s ascent came the typical comparisons that Leafs supporters like to make, with Timothy Liljegren being the obvious target for some negative talk. This happens all the time in hockey and in sports in general, especially in Toronto; Marner can’t be good without it meaning Nylander is now somehow bad, Rielly and Gardiner even had similar discussions surrounding them for years. It’s par for the course, especially when the players get to the NHL level. But Liljegren isn’t at that level yet, and while people are quick to point that out as a failure on his part, it simply isn’t. Sandin’s quick climb doesn’t take away from what Liljegren is still trying to do.
The thing is, Sandin is a special case. Defencemen who are drafted outside the top of the first round don’t typically blow AHL numbers out of the water as 18-year-olds and then find meaningful NHL roles the following year. It’s a very pleasant surprise that it’s happened, but we should never have expected it, or judged Sandin negatively if he didn’t light things up right away. For that reason we should take a step back and let Liljegren do his thing, knowing that he may be on the more typically drawn out development curve. Nothing wrong with it. The guy is 20-years-old, we can’t even be close to writing him off yet, and I know the Leafs certainly aren’t…which is what matters most.
I don’t claim to be a prospects expert by any means, and since the Leafs have gotten back to proper contention these last few years I’ve definitely lost a lot of interest in things at the Marlies level. But this isn’t even about the fine details in Liljegren’s game that may or may not make him a good player down the road, it’s the perception we have on prospects that has likely been thrown completely out of orbit by how things have played out recently in Toronto. Think about it, as far as prospects turning out goes, here’s what the Leafs have had since 2014: Nylander hit, Marner hit, Matthews hit, and now Sandin has hit. Sure, you could say that only Sandin is a real surprise among that group, but that’s just it, it’s been a run of immediate impacts, even if most are high picks. Even going back as far as Rielly and Kadri it remains true, but in reality players in that 5-7 range where they were taken flame out all the time. Toronto has been far luckier than most in this regard. Then, because the narrative around Liljegren at his own draft was “Holy smokes, this guy was ranked top 3 and fell. What a steal!“, he unfairly got thrown in the basket with the big three as a player who should bolster the group as soon as possible. We need to pump the brakes.
And don’t get me wrong, Sandin has clearly blown past Liljegren. I would go as far as saying they’re hardly comparable right now, but that again speaks to Sandin’s relatively rare climb and not anything Liljegren has supposedly “failed at”. Liljegren has had his battles with injuries over the last three years, and I’d expect he’ll be cut from the Leafs in the next day or so where he’ll report to the Marlies with a lot to keep working on at the minor level. And who knows? Perhaps he will have a hard time breaking into the NHL in the coming years. But right now he’s a defenceman two years removed from being drafted and it’s far, far too early to make that sort of determination.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Sandin making the Leafs out of camp so soon, but it doesn’t have to mean cutting down Liljegren. Instead, we need to adjust our projected timelines for prospects like him and realize that what Sandin did isn’t normal, even if it seems so with the way young players have taken over the roster in recent years.