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Hockey Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin looks to make his mark with Sweden at world juniors

Rasmus Sandin skates during warm-up prior to an NHL Rookie Showdown game against the Ottawa Senators in Laval, Que., on Sept. 8, 2018.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Rasmus Sandin often heads over to Timothy Liljegren’s place after the Toronto Marlies wrap up practice.

The Swedish defencemen usually just hang out, cook food and sometimes talk about life playing hockey as teenagers more than 6,000 kilometres from home.

“He’s older, so he’s got to take care of me,” Sandin, 373 days younger than Liljegren, said with a cheeky grin in a recent interview. “We spend a lot time together.”

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The plan was for Sandin, 18, and Liljegren, 19, to spend even more time together at the world junior hockey championship, but it’s looking increasingly like Sweden will have to settle for just one of the Maple Leafs’ first-round picks at the upcoming tournament in Vancouver and Victoria.

Liljegren suffered a high ankle sprain earlier this month playing in the American Hockey League, and while he’s continuing to rehab with Toronto’s sports science team, it doesn’t sound as if he’ll be healthy in time for the event that begins Dec. 26.

“It’s certainly understandable that he wants to push to play,” Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said on Monday. “I just don’t know that it’s going to be realistic.”

A blueliner with untapped offensive upside – similar to Liljegren – Sandin was always expected to play a big role as part of Sweden’s world junior entry. He now could see even more high-pressure minutes with his AHL teammate’s presumed absence.

“He’s remained steady for an 18-year-old and a later first-round [selection],” Dubas said of Sandin, the GM’s first-ever draft pick in the top job at No. 29 last June. “He’s been outstanding. I know they’re going to rely heavily on him.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity.”

Sandin, who played for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season, has five goals and five assists in 18 games with the Marlies, including a combined three points in back-to-back wins over the weekend before joining Sweden’s junior squad.

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“It was a little different in the beginning, but I’m getting more and more used to it every game,” Sandin said of adjusting to the AHL. “I feel pretty confident out there and it feels pretty good.

“The players are stronger, they’re quicker. You have to make your decisions even quicker.”

Marlies defenceman Frank Corrado, who has been paired with Sandin at different times on the Leafs’ farm team this season, said the organization found a good one.

“He’s everything you want to see in a young player – great attitude, great demeanour,” Corrado said. “He’s not afraid to make plays, he’s not afraid to be creative on the ice. He’s got such a bright future, you can just tell.

“I see a great kid and I see a great player.”

Sandin said pretournament conversations with Sweden’s coaching staff suggested he should expect to carry a lot of the mail on a blueline that will also be without Buffalo defenceman and reigning No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, but does have Adam Boqvist (eighth overall to Chicago in 2018) and Erik Brannstrom (15th overall to Vegas in 2017).

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“It would be good to get [Dahlin], too,” joked the outgoing Sandin. “They kind of want me in the same role I get here, maybe even a bit bigger one – playing penalty kill, power play, everything. It’s going to a fun experience.

“It’s been a dream my whole life to play at the world juniors.”

Dubas, meanwhile, said Liljegren’s injury is a double blow because he had impressed with the Marlies and was viewed as a potential NHL call-up later in the season for a Leafs team that has had issues moving the puck quickly from the back end.

The 17th overall selection at the 2017 draft had an uneven inaugural campaign in North America that saw him play at the world juniors and skate as the second-youngest player in the AHL, but he had grown into an important role with the Marlies so far in 2018, registering two goals and six assists in 19 games before the injury.

“It’s really unfortunate because he’d been having an excellent season,” Dubas said. “He moves the puck very well.

“This is going to set him back for quite a few weeks.”

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Sweden, which won silver at last year’s world junior tournament, is in a group that includes the United States, Finland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan. The Swedes open their preliminary round on Boxing Day against the rival Finns in Victoria.

“Playing for Sweden is always about trying to take a gold medal,” Sandin said. “That’s always the goal.

“We’ll see what happens.”

Dubas and the Leafs will be watching.

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