Timothy Liljegren is the biggest “will he or won’t he” for the Leafs this year. Unlike Carl Grundström, the choice for Liljegren is not the NHL roster or back to Sweden. He can play in the AHL.
Liljegren had a rough outing in his first rookie tournament game. Since that tournament only has two games this season, it’s not going to tell anyone a lot about Liljegren’s game or state of development, but it’s a hint.
One hint is that his defensive game has lots of room for improvement. While I’m sure people will rush to explain that Liljegren was hung out to dry on some of his four goals against on Friday night — almost as fast as he fruitlessly rushed to get into position some of the time — he is a rookie for real, and he makes mistakes.
His weaknesses on display last night were the same ones shown in the WJSS in Plymouth, Michigan a few weeks ago. At that time he talked about the Swedish national team coach wanting him to focus on the defensive side to his game, and he talked about wanting to work on his shortcomings.
Other hints to Liljegren’s abilities showed in Friday’s game too. His skating and puck handling was superior to any other defenceman on the ice for the Leafs, and his performance on the power play and at even strength in the offensive zone was superior to every other defender as well. Andrew Nielsen, the only professionally experienced defender in the game, can effectively stand and deliver a big booming shot in the AHL, but he’s not mobile on the power play.
Liljegren, who didn’t need a diagram to tell him to pass the puck to Jeremy Bracco on the power play, or how to keep things moving, suddenly looked like a man with a hockey brain ticking along at high speed.
Did you know Liljegren had mono?
The thing that held Liljegren back last year and also hastened his fall from a perspective first overall to 17th (one bellow where Bob McKenzie’s consensus ranking had him a few days before the draft), was that he never played with one team for more than a few games in a row.
He has not played a consistent system with a regular defensive partner at the adult level. Getting that, getting regular ice time and specialized training and coaching is why I’d like to see him play on the Marlies this year. I think it’s more likely now after his first rookie game that he will.
If he went back to Rögle, he might not make the team.
He’d either be loaned to an Allsvenskan team or bounced back to the junior team, and it would be last year all over again. At best, he’d get fourth unit minutes and a lot of bench time.
The Marlies can give him Stephane Robidas, Vincent LoVerde (a right-shooting, offensive defender who is small and mobile), the coaching staff, and likely one other Swedish defender on the roster.
The SHL does a great job of developing players, and it’s not going to be a cause for upset when Carl Grundström goes back there. I’m not saying there won’t be paternalistic cries of outrage over “taking our player”, I’m saying they won’t be warranted.
When Grundström goes back to Frölunda, he’s joining a roster that has a host of hot young talent. Lias Andersson might be with him, or might still be in New York, but the young defender who is touted right now as the next first overall, Rasmus Dahlin, will definitely be there.
There is a big difference between Dahlin, now at 17, and Liljegren at that age last year, and health is the least of it. Dahlin is better. Once the draft frenzy heats up for real, and the buzz on Dahlin grows, you’ll see Leafs fans who want to pump Liljegren’s tires and will claim he’s the better of the two.
They’ll declare Liljegren was the draft steal of the century, high on their own hype. But because Dahlin is better, and has elite offensive skills, he can play in the SHL as a teenager and prosper. Whoever drafts him this summer, however high, can comfortably have him play his post-draft year there if they want.
Dahlin will get ice time, a regular partner of high quality, the best coaching, and a chance to go deep in the playoffs. His team will be as concerned with his future as it’s possible to be, even though they know he might not come back to play again until the next lockout. They’re grooming the man who might be Sweden’s next first overall. He will be a national team star. He already is a star.
Liljegren’s team, on the other hand, is trying to stave off relegation — a fate they barely avoided last year — and they have chosen a path with older, veteran players on defence that doesn’t seem to be leaving a lot of room for a teenage rookie to figure things out.
Is there more room in Toronto?
On the Marlies, where the point of the exercise is to balance a winning team with player development of Leafs draft picks, there is as much room as there needs to be for a player like Liljegren.
It’s difficult to guess at the Marlies defensive setup in advance of training camp — we don’t know who is on the Leafs roster yet — but a fair approximation can be made.
It’s likely that the late-season pairing of Justin Holl and Andrew Nielsen will continue this year. They played a lot as the second or third pair depending on the circumstance, and Nielsen, a power play specialist, saw less and less even strength action as the season wore on. That’s likely to continue too.
At the top end, LoVerde is the obvious natural number one right-shooter. This is complicated by the side-switching of both Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosén, but LoVerde is likely to play top pair. If Travis Dermott is not on the Leafs, we should expect him as the top left side man. If he is not available, one of Rosén or Borgman may fill that slot.
That leaves Rinat Valiev, a veteran at 22, and a defender who grew into his game somewhat last season. He’s a potential partner for Liljegren, and he would be the perfect mix of youth and AHL experience, while also knowing everything you don’t know when you’ve played in Europe your whole life.
Both Rosén and Borgman seem to be too much “more of the same” to pair with Liljegren, so it’s not impossible we would see Liljegren also with Holl, who is steady, not offensively focused, and not a risk taker.
If we see the Leafs run a roster of eight defenders, and they choose to cycle some of the extras up and down to the AHL, taking advantage of all that waiver exemption, Liljegren might get a rotating cast of partner, but it’s not a given. It seems like all of that business will occupy the top pairing and leave the bottom two as undisturbed as Sheldon Keefe is willing to keep them. He does tend to more defensive stability than he allows the forwards to enjoy.
I like this scheme. I want the Leafs to do this, even though I’m cautious about playing very young players in the AHL.
The truth is, there are teenage players of varying levels of skill who are too good for junior. If junior is an elite team, like Mitch Marner or Adam Brooks had, you can park them there and they come to no harm. In the case of European players who are not quite enough to warrant a full-time slot on a men’s team, the answer for them might well be play in the AHL if that’s possible depending on the player.
It’s long past time the AHL was made over fully into the development league it claims to be, where dirty hits aren’t the norm. So count me out on raising the draft age, and count me in to solving the real problem: making all places hockey players play safe and inclusive environments for them to hone their skills in a positive environment.
The Leafs play one more rookie game on Sunday afternoon. Given the injuries to the defence corps, and Liljegren’s own desire to do better, I expect him to play. We’ll see how he does the second time around. And sometime during training camp, we’ll know for sure where Liljegren will spend the rest of this season.