Timothy Liljegren fell short of a gold medal at the 2017-2018 World Junior Championship, but at least we know that he can make a stretch pass. He performed as advertised, showcasing his lateral quickness, aggressive style, and ability to elude opposing forecheckers. He looked comfortable on Sweden’s second pairing, and unlike many of this event’s top defencemen, he is still eligible to play in next year’s World Juniors.
Liljegren ended up with one goal and one assist in 7 games, and both of these points came in a 4-3 win against Russia. He certainly deserved a few more points along the way, but nevertheless, it is not worth reading into his point production very heavily. Of the NHL’s highest scoring defencemen, the vast majority did not put up particularly impressive point totals before turning 19.
Production in World Juniors In 18 Year Old Season
The two exceptions are Erik Karlsson and Seth Jones, who were major standouts in this event. Both Doughty and Hedman did not get the opportunity to play in this event after being drafted, while players such as Duncan Keith and John Carlson did not make their team at the age of 18.
Assessing Liljegren’s Play at the World Juniors
The master of the stretch pass
Liljegren was five years old when the NHL got rid of the two-line pass rule, and it is a good thing they did, as Liljegren would be causing a stoppage in play every few minutes. He got robbed of an assist in the GIF above, but this 100 foot breakout pass transitioned Sweden into the offensive zone in a blink of an eye.
He attempted several stretch passes throughout this event, and while his success rate was not perfect, there were a few beautiful plays along the way:
Standing out as an above average puck carrier
Just like a NFL quarterback, Liljegren often uses his feet when there are no open receivers available. While he fell short of Rasmus Dahlin in this area, his speed and puck carrying ability certainly stood out as above average:
He breaks another set of ankles during the play below, carries the puck deep into the offensive zone, then completes the play with a “royal road” pass across the ice:
Of course, Liljegren’s ability to impress as a puck carrier is not remotely surprising, as this is what he was known for heading into the draft. He’s always a weapon in open ice. Here’s a clip of him in 4-on-4 action from back in April:
Utilizing his lateral quickness to play a physical style
Liljegren will never be mistaken for Scott Stevens, but he did lay out a few big hits in this seven game tournament. It is not the hit itself that is impressive, but his ability to use his speed to “cut off” opposing forwards along the boards. This aggressive style allows him to prevent clean zone entries.
A Look Ahead
Liljegren took on a second pairing role in this event, using his lateral quickness to challenge opposing forwards with a fairly aggressive style. Challenging top-end forwards can lead to a big mistake from time to time, but overall, this helped to keep the puck out of his own end. His transition game remains his calling card, as he is able to retrieve loose pucks quickly, and move the puck before an opposing forechecker can get to him.
This event was filled with 19 year old defenders in Cale Makar, Victor Mete, Conor Timmins, Kale Clague, Cal Foote, Dante Fabbro, Jake Bean, Libor Hajek, Adam Fox, Juuso Valimaki, and Olli Juolevi. While Liljegren did not look out of place, his time to shine should be in next year’s event, and I expect him to be a top contributor in Vancouver and Victoria. Rasmus Dahlin will be playing in the NHL, so Liljegren could see more powerplay time as a result.
Liljegren is starting to look a little bit stronger, and it helps that he was playing against players his own age once again. The question becomes: can the rest of his game catch up to his skating ability? At 6’0, he still carries plenty of size to fill out physically, and playing a heavier style will help him to earn minutes against tougher competition at the NHL level. The Marlies website lists him at 193 pounds, and I expect him to be close to 200 when he makes his NHL debut. He reminds me of many NBA prospects in this sense, as many first round picks struggle defensively in their first year until they can matchup with other players physically.
Of course, it is far easier to help Liljegren get stronger, compared to trying to help Cal Foote learn how to skate and transition the puck like Liljegren. Erik Brannstrom outplayed him both at this event and during the World Junior Summer Showcase, but Liljegren simply carries more room to grow. The Leafs have greatly benefited in recent years from taking a patient approach at the draft, focusing on skill over size in the first round, and giving players time to mature physically. Many NHL scouts seem to replace the difficult question of “who will be the best NHL player in the future” with an easier question of “who is the best player now?”. Lawson Crouse, Nick Ritchie, and Cal Foote could all hold their own from a physical perspective at the time of their draft, but it becomes a concern when they stop growing.
Liljegren can win the initial footrace by a large enough margin to stay out of 50-50 puck battles, transitioning the puck up the ice rather effortlessly. His puck handling ability remains above average, and he certainly showcased his ability to fire a quick and accurate breakout pass. You will hear the prototypical criticism of “he needs to simplify his game” from many outlets, but I think his path to success largely relies on his ability to get stronger and win a higher percentage of physical battles. There is a little bit of sloppiness to his game, and he falls more than the average defender, but a combination of speed, strength, and skill would make him a solid top four defender on a contender. If he is given the chance to participate, prepare for a more physically mature Liljegren to be a top performer at next year’s World Juniors. I expect him to be there.