The Toronto Maple Leafs at the start of the 2016-17 season didn’t have high hopes. It was said to be another rebuilding year, hopefully, get another high draft pick to add to the lottery. It was okay though because the Leafs were hoping to tank for the smooth-skating defender from Sweden and hopefully get Timothy Liljegren. Well, the season didn’t go exactly as everyone thought, with the Leafs making the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, taking the last wildcard spot in the East. When draft day came around, the Leafs held the 17th overall pick and hadn’t tanked at all.
However, the same result happened. The Leafs ended up with Liljegren after he fell into their lap. It was no secret going into the draft that their defence was not the quality that a hopeful cup contender’s defence should be, and that’s what made getting a player of Liljegren’s calibre so much more exciting.
Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect Liljegren Is Developing Quickly
Going into the 2016-17 NHL season, Bob McKenzie had Liljegren ranked seconnd in his preseason draft rankings saying that the Swedish defenseman was the “undisputed top defenseman in this draft”. So why did he fall all the way to 17th overall and the 6th defenseman taken? When a player is a highly touted as Liljegren, scouts have a certain expectation when they go see them play. Liljegren did not meet this standard and that’s why he continued to fall. This is not to go against his skill though because Liljegren had a tough time with mononucleosis in his draft year. To the majority of the population, this means we are not 100% for months, and for a top-level athlete it means you may not play like a top-level athlete.
Despite having missed some time from injury, Liljegren seems to be fitting in perfectly under Sheldon Keefe’s system. “I think he’s fit in extremely well. He’s made the transition. He’s a very competitive guy. Even in our practice, you see him get paired up in some of the drills with Colin Greening, Ben Smith, Rich Clune, these older, big, strong forwards and he doesn’t back down. He’s very competitive, and it has been fun to watch that.” said head coach Keefe.
It is rare to see an 18-year old player at the AHL level, and even rarer to see a player succeeding at that age. With 12 points in 30 games with the Toronto Marlies, he sits in the company of Hampus Lindholm, and Slava Voynov amongst the best point producing defenders of the age group. He is succeeding in the offensive aspects of his game, but his talent to produce points was never in question. It’s always been his ability to play in his own end that made scouts uncertain. With Keefe, however, he has grown into a better all-around defenseman. Keefe and the rest of the Marlies organization have been grooming Liljegren into the player that the Leafs organization needs. They did a very similar thing with Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen.
Dermott was very similar to Liljegren with the fact that his offence was good, but his defence needed work. Kapanen was all flash and offence when he came to Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, but Keefe turned Dermott into a defensively responsible player that can join the rush and play his off-side on the right and turned Kapanen into a player that can play in all situations, as well as kill penalties. The same thing is being done with Liljegren, and it is beginning to pay off.
With a quiet World Junior Tournament, Liljegren only had two points in seven games with the silver medal Swedish team, but he showed that he was more than just an offensive defenseman now. Going into his draft year he was playing high-risk, high-reward type of plays to try and impress the scouts, but now he is able to play a safer game that has improved his defensive play. He still has his struggles at times in his own end but is continuing to grow.
Less Is More With #Leafs Liljegren: "Last year, I kind of tried to prove myself every game and made some high-risk plays. Now, I take my chances when I can get them and make the safe plays when I can.” https://t.co/7rJuPvZogN https://t.co/jdzzQsAT1l
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) December 31, 2017
The Future for Liljegren
While both were in the AHL, Liljegren played alongside Travis Dermott. The two had significant success for the 16 games they played together. Given the success that Dermott and Liljegren had playing together (nine points and eight points respectively) it isn’t unreasonable to assume we could see this pairing together again at the NHL level one day. While thriving in top-four minutes while being the youngest defenseman in the AHL is certainly impressive, we should be looking to see Liljegren as an NHL regular for the 2019-20 NHL season, with Kapanen-like stints next season.