Trust the kids: It's time for Leafs to play Sandin, Liljegren

May 9 2022, 6:37 pm

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has his work cut out for him.

With the Leafs tied 2-2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs are guaranteed to hit six or seven games for their sixth consecutive playoff series (save for a five-game set that went the distance against Columbus in the 2020 bubble playoffs).

It was never going to be any other way, was it?

The series has had its twists and turns: 30 goals scored across four games, but no game being closer than a two-goal margin on either side.

It’s been about everything you’d expect from a series featuring two of the league’s better offensive teams: scoring has been aplenty, and defence has been seemingly optional.

Keefe answered a question last night asking about why he started the team’s “worst defenceman” in Justin Holl in a hostile Tampa arena during the 7-3 Game 4 loss.

With Holl on the ice, Tampa Bay scored in the game’s opening minute with a lead they’d never relinquish. Unfair and pointed criticism? Sure.

But judging by the 500+ reactions that tweet has generated, people clearly have opinions about Holl, the Leafs’ defence, and sports journalism ethics.

Here’s my opinion: it’s time to put Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin back in the lineup.

After playing in Games 1 and 2, Liljegren has sat the last two games while Holl has slotted in. Sandin hasn’t played since March 19 while recovering from a knee injury but was activated from Injured Reserve last week and has been skating with the team.

Assuming they’re healthy and with the season on the line, it’s time to give them their shot.

For better or for worse, the Leafs should trust the 23-year-old Liljegren and the 22-year-old Sandin moving forward. Pull the 30-year-old Holl and 28-year-old Ilya Lyubushkin out of the lineup, and run with the team’s 2017 and 2018 first-round picks. It’s now or never.

There’s an old adage in sports that you’d rather try to win with a young player you aren’t sure is good than lose with an older player you’re pretty sure isn’t good.

How do the numbers stack up for the Leafs’ D?

Trying to really define what makes an NHL defenceman great — or even just the difference between good and bad — isn’t an easy task.

The Leafs have used nine defencemen this season for an extended stretch of time and are picking six between eight of them (Travis Dermott was shipped to Vancouver) for their next two or three playoff games.

When it comes to the numbers, the two younger players: Sandin and Liljegren – have outshone Holl and Lyubushkin this season.

Looking at the 5v5 stats this season for each player (via Natural Stat Trick), there’s a clear trend of the two younger players consistently ranking above their older teammates amongst Leafs D-men.

Sandin Liljegren Holl Lyubushkin
CF% 54.69 (4th) 55.09 (1st) 52.22 (8th) 51.69 (9th)
GF% 55.07 (3rd) 57.58 (2nd) 51.82 (7th) 48.78 (8th)
xGF% 58.28 (3rd) 59.50 (2nd) 54.69 (5th) 51.80 (9th)

There are a million nuances to the challenge of being an NHL defender, but there’s not that much nuance to the data showing who’s performed better this year.

There’s nothing to shield Sandin and Liljegren from at this point. Win or lose, there’s no way for the Leafs’ two youngest defencemen to get better if they’re not given to opportunity to perform in high-pressure situations.

Keefe is in an unenviable position to make these calls, but making the right one could be the difference between winning and losing the series.

Game 5 goes tomorrow night at Scotiabank Arena at 7:30 pm ET.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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