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Can Timothy Liljegren make the Maple Leafs?

It’s time to play that age-old game of will he or won’t he with this year’s prospect.

Vancouver Canucks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Timothy Liljegren is getting a lot of buzz at training camp. Maple Leafs fans have been justifiably obsessed with defencemen for years, mostly because the team didn’t have any, and you can’t change to looking only at the forwards overnight. So while the obvious competition for spots on the roster and the two important positions on the top-six go on, the lack of open places on defence hasn’t stopped anyone from wanting Liljegren on the roster.

Should He Make The Team?

My thoughts on this are simple: no, he shouldn’t. But that’s far from a universally held position. I don’t believe in that mantra of “playing the kids”, or rather I do in the right circumstances, but I don’t see the purpose of playing any prospect very few minutes in low leverage situations as a form of development. I do believe in that Mike Babcock standard line that the NHL is not a development league.

The Leafs are in a weird place because they are, in form, a mature team full of players whose contributions are fully understood, and with a roster created to fit those players together in a way that maximizes their value. But they aren’t, obviously, a team that’s reaped the rewards that offset the boredom of no one new ever making the team. The quality of the prospects has declined, which is expected, and a lot easier to be philosophical about with some playoff series wins in the books.

Because the Leafs have a lot more to prove than a team usually does at their stage in climbing out of the basement of decades of futility, they aren’t going to experiment, play the AHLers just to give them a chance, just to see what’s there, just in case. They aren’t going to dump Justin Holl or trade Morgan Rielly just to open up a space for Liljegren. They aren’t going to kill off one of the main characters to cast a new young guy to attract new viewers.

For Liljegren to make the team, he’d be playing less than the two capable youngest members of the current defence corps. He’d need to be better than Travis Dermott — right now, for sure, not just in our hopes and dreams — and he’d need to be able to keep that up for 82 games. Otherwise, he’s going right back to the AHL to play more PK because all the power play jobs on the Leafs are taken.

This is the reality of the NHL today. Do you want to make the show as a defenceman? You better be excellent at PK, because the number of power play jobs league-wide gets closer to 64 every year. There’s still at least 128 PK jobs. The other thing you need if the team you’re trying to make is the Maple Leafs is to give up entirely on you point shot, they just don’t do that here. Whatever Liljegren imagined himself to be when he was drafted, he’s not going to be that unless he leaves North America. Rasmus Sandin had the unfair advantage of working in the incubator for this new vision of defence, and that’s as much why he’s where he is as anything else.

Liljegren doesn’t “deserve” a roster spot because he played well in some games where the competition wasn’t much different to a night against the Manitoba Moose, he needs to finish making himself into the best version of the kind of defender the NHL has now, and then he can see if he’s enough.

Will he make the team?

No.

Because it’s not about him. You’ve seen the roster projections, and if you want Liljegren on that roster, you are implicitly suggesting the team will play all the time with 12 forwards and seven defenders. Leave aside that you want this guy on the roster when he’ll be sent to the AHL for every single non-defender injury or case of the sniffles. To put him there, means a forward gets waived.

There’s a couple of possibilities, because it seems like Wayne Simmonds has a contract that would keep him from being claimed, but he’s not going to play in the AHL. He signed that deal to play on the Maple Leafs — full time. And nothing the team has done has indicated they think differently. So, that’s a trick up the sleeve for emergencies down the road, not the method to get Liljegren into the pressbox.

Another possibility is Pierre Engvall. He would never clear waivers, so that would mean the Leafs would have to know (not hope and dream) that Liljegren’s impact on defence is not just better than Travis Dermott’s or the nearest callup like Alex Biega or Brennan Menell, but also Engvall’s value. He’s got to be worth two others to cost a forward on waivers.

Will he get called up?

Maybe, but he’s got another problem. His timing is not impeccable. Liljegren signed his ELC in 2017 when the world was vastly different to now, and only Kyle Dubas knew the name Rasmus Sandin, the rest of us hadn’t met him yet. Liljegren signed a very standard deal for a player taken in the mid-first-round. It has a cap hit of $925,000, the maximum, and performance bonuses of $400,000. No smart fellow is signing that sort of deal with the Leafs now.

Rodion Amirov has a maximum deal, but has no bonuses. Nick Robertson’s deal is a very, very smart $850,000 cap hit. He likely could have dug in for the maximum, but instead he set himself up to get in some games instead. The reason is the roster emergency rules and LTIR.

Last season, the Leafs had to work at it to get Liljegren on the roster to play in a game. Because they operated in LTIR, his performance bonus counted as part of his AAV for purposes of using the LTIR pool on a recall. That’s still true if the Leafs end up in LTIR space again this season. They are so tight to the cap, that’s likely to happen for any injury that’s more than day-to-day.

But on top of that, the roster emergency rules work against Liljegren and in favour of the recent signings who all have cheaper deals. In brief, a roster emergency exists once a team is forced to play with less than 18 skaters. Once that happens — and it did last year several times to other teams — the team is allowed to call up a player who earns no more than the minimum salary plus $100,000 in AAV, and that player doesn’t count against the salary cap. If the Leafs don’t have anyone on LTIR, this is the only way they’ll be able to cover a pair of minor injuries, or any injury to a goalie.

Liljegren’s AAV, even without his bonuses, is too much. Nick Robertson, Alex Steeves, Menell, Biega, Carl Dahlström, Filip Král and every single player in the AHL on an NHL contract but Liljegren can be called up under this rule.

That doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the AHL all season; it’s entirely possible that someone earning more than his AAV will end up injured, and his waiver exemption makes him a good callup choice, but don’t expect him to be the first name on Kyle Dubas’s lips when they have an emergency.

Liljegren is a pending RFA, and if he’s smart, his next contract will fit the new, leaner, meaner NHL standard. Next year he might make the team right out of camp.