As Toronto’s first round pick in the 2017 Entry Draft, Timothy Liljegren should grab a seat and get comfortable, as he is going to be on this list for years to come. If all goes well, he can become the #1 on our Top 25 Under 25 ranking once Auston Matthews turns 25 in 2022! He debuts at #7 on our list this year, far ahead of any other prospect from Toronto’s most recent draft.
Liljegren is a talented offensive defenceman who stands out with top-end speed. He is a confident puck handler and powerplay quarterback, and his hard and accurate wrist shot makes him a major scoring threat from the backend. He was among the leaders in shots on goal in both the Under 18 Tournament and the World Junior Summer Showcase, and he constantly generates clean zone entries thanks to his elusiveness.
He was the #2 prospect on Bob McKenzie’s pre-season ranking last September, and was then regarded as the clear top defenceman in his draft class. After a rough season, which included battling through mononucleosis, he fell all the way to #16 on McKenzie’s final draft rankings. On one hand, if Liljegren was healthy all season, he is likely one of the first sixteen picks in his draft. On the other hand, it is important to note that Liljegren’s draft stock also fell for reasons other than mono, and top talents such as Nico Hischier, Casey Mittelstadt, and Cale Makar simply passed him thanks to their strong play.
I recommend this video of Liljegren’s highlights from the Under-18 tournament, as you can see more than simply his goals and assists. You can quickly tell that Liljegren is more than a simple “chip and chase” type of player. He showcases his puck carrying ability and draws a penalty here:
Additionally, his ability to make quick decisions and accurate passes makes him a major asset on the powerplay (Liljegren is wearing #8 and is the right-shooting defenceman in the GIF below)
Liljegren ranked eighth on my final draft rankings, and he was the best player on my board when the Leafs picked at #17. He can put on a show with the puck on his stick, and his performance at the World Junior Summer Showcase further solidifies his status as a top prospect. He will beat opposing defenders out wide on an end to end rush, then race back into position without breaking a sweat. His wrist shot makes him look like a scoring winger, and his talent level allows him to drive closer to the net rather than simply shooting from a distance.
He is currently built like an 18-year old prospect, rather than an NHL player, and he is less physically mature than fellow first round picks such as Cal Foote, Cale Makar, and Juuso Valimaki. He must get stronger and improve in his own end in order to reach his full potential, but he owns an intriguing skill set to build off of thanks to his skating and puck handling skill. Fortunately, as one of the younger players in this year’s draft, there is still plenty of time for him to add strength and fine tune the rest of his game.
You can see Liljegren’s creativity, puck handling skill, and hard wrist shot here:
Three voters, including myself, ranked Liljegren fifth behind only Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander. This is high praise for a recently drafted 18 year old, and this speaks to Liljegren’s potential to develop into an impact talent. The top five of our list is usually filled with established NHL contributors, and although everyone can appreciate Liljegren’s upside, it is worth noting that there is a lot more uncertainty here than with players such as Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, or Connor Carrick. As a result, many voters took more of a cautious approach, and tried to avoid putting the cart before the horse.
Nevertheless, there was little variance in terms of this ranking, as every voter placed him between fifth and ninth. Personally, my list places a strong emphasis on finding potential difference makers, or players who could someday clearly standout over replacement level players. Although Liljegren is far from a sure thing at this point, I view him as a top ten talent in his draft class, and I would be willing to trade Connor Brown or Connor Carrick for any player in the top 10 of my draft rankings.
Liljegren reminds me a little bit of Kasperi Kapanen, despite the fact that they play two different positions. Just like Liljegren, Kapanen was drafted as a top-end skater who needed to get stronger, improve in his own end, and develop into a more complete player. His speed and skill combination always gave Kapanen top-6 potential, and the Leafs worked with him to add strength, improve his two-way game, and become a reliable penalty killer.
Garret Hohl of Canucks Army summed up Liljegren’s skill set nicely when this website rated him as the 6th best prospect in his draft class: (I would highly recommend reading this article, and you can follow Garret on twitter here.)
“Liljegren is a wonderful skater. He’s quick, fast, and mobile. He can change directions with ease, accelerates efficiently, and produces an extremely powerful skating stride. His skating mechanics are a thing of beauty. He uses this to move the puck down the ice, join the rush, and create offence.”
“Defensively Liljegren plays well enough. He is not viewed as a defensive liability and the term two-way defender follows him around, not offensive specialist. His skating and ability to read the game as it unfolds places him in the right places at the right time. The biggest weakness is his weakness, as in he lacks in strength. Strength, especially at this age, is the easiest variable to change”.
By all accounts, Liljegren is a standout in the offensive zone. However, his greatest strength comes when the puck is on his stick in the neutral zone. He continuously creates offensive zone time by weaving through traffic and backing up opposing defenders with his speed. Liljegren is a major weapon in terms of zone entries, which is evident in the GIFs below:
Standing out at the World Junior Summer Showcase:
I carried high expectations for Liljegren heading into this event, and for the most part, he lived up to the hype. His speed and puck carrying regularly created clean zone entries, and he impressed with his ability to walk the puck across the blueline and generate shots on goal. He threw the puck on net like crazy, set up his forwards with tape to tape breakout passes, and showed a willingness to engage in physical play.
Liljegren carries a reputation for being a high-risk player, but this title was instead claimed by one of his teammates in Fillip Westerlund. However, there were still some mistakes in his game, as he coughed up the puck a couple of times when opposing forecheckers applied heavy pressure. He could stand to be a little bit more careful with the puck in his own end, and added strength would help him to protect the puck and shield off these opponents.
Fellow first round picks Cale Makar, Erik Brannstrom, and Juuso Valimaki were all outstanding in this event, and from my perspective, they played just as well as Liljegren if not better. Makar offers a similar profile in terms of his skating, puck moving, and ability to run a powerplay, but his game is more polished at this point, and he is a stronger force in front of his own net. Similarly, Valimaki’s strength, long reach, and defensive awareness allows him to play a more mature style.
In regards to the NHL draft, who is better on draft day matters far less than who is better several seasons down the road. Liljegren is younger and less physically mature compared to many of his peers, but unlike Valimaki and Makar, this is not his last chance to go to the World Juniors. It looks as though he could breakout in a big way once he gets stronger, and we see a similar theme every year in the NBA, as the best scorers in the draft often require a year or two before they can become reliable players in the defensive end.
The Big Picture
Liljegren already impresses as a plus skater, puck carrier, and goal scoring threat from the backend. He is comfortable with the puck on his stick, and his skill set allows him to drive play by generating clean zone exits and zone entries. Liljegren can thread the needle with a breakout pass, but if there are limited passing options available, he is fine with rushing the puck up himself and driving the puck into the offensive zone with speed.
Eighteen-year-old defencemen rarely make the NHL following their draft year, and Liljegren could use a year or two to fine-tune his game, improve his decision making, and develop physically. Nevertheless, ranking #7 on this list is quite impressive for a player of his age, and he came out ahead of an established NHL player in Connor Carrick thanks to his scoring upside.
At this time, it is not clear whether Liljegren will start the season with the Toronto Marlies, or if he will head back to Sweden to play in the SHL. He looks bound to play for Sweden in this year’s World Juniors, and this will take place just down the QEW in Buffalo. It’s still tough to believe that Liljegren fell to Toronto at #17. Let’s hope that he can develop into a mid-round steal at a position of need.