When defender Timothy Liljegren was selected 17th overall in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, there was much rejoicing from Leaf fans across the Internet. While Liljegren’s stock had dropped over the course of a difficult draft season and Bob McKenzie had him at 16th overall in his last ranking, Liljegren was still perceived as a potentially terrific prospect, with his agility and his capacity for rushing the puck. His draft year struggles were explained away by a case of mononucleosis that afflicted him. He played in Sweden’s top pro league in his age-16 and age-17 seasons, which is impressive any way you slice it. And best of all, he shot right, a very attractive trait for a Leafs’ organization that has been searching for quality right-shot defenders since Tim Horton.
Two years on, it feels like the excitement around Liljegren has dimmed a bit. In the eyes of many commentators, including most of our voters, he’s been surpassed by 2018 first-rounder Rasmus Sandin. His point production stagnated (17 points down to 15), and if we’re being honest, the minute or two Leaf fans spend staring at his stat pages is more than most of them will spend watching him play in the AHL. A high-ankle sprain took him out of the World Juniors and several games in this key season.
All of this leaves us in a bit of an odd spot for a player who is still almost certainly the second-best prospect in the organization outside the NHL.
It’s weird for me too. With virtually every prospect before him on this list, I think people get too optimistic. With Liljegren, I think the popular wisdom might actually be a little too low.
How He’s Doing
Our former managing editor Scott Wheeler had Liljegren #2 in his Leafs’ prospect rankings earlier this summer, with the following measured quote:
Liljegren’s progression has been dumbfounding. He was drafted as a dynamic, offensive defencemen who could quarterback a power play but struggled mightily in his own zone, turning the puck over far too much. Two years later, he’s on the reverse trajectory, having worked to improve his defensive game and become a reliable defender while simultaneously sustaining stagnant offensive growth. Today, I see him as a player who has a chance to be a second-pairing option but is more likely a third-pairing guy. He’s likely just a possession-driving even-strength option who can substitute in on PP2 or PK2 if need be (I don’t see much special teams upside in his game). That may still make him a useful, cost-controlled piece during the present contending window for the Leafs but he’s not going to be a star.
Scott is a good judge of hockey talent, and I give his analysis of Liljegren a lot of respect. “Not a star” certainly sounds fair and likely. Still, it’s worth looking at some of the circumstances involved in that fascinating change in trajectory.
The first thing to note is that Liljegren just turned 20 at the end of April. Of the twenty-five ranked players this year, Lily is younger than twenty-one of them. His early appearance in the AHL can make him seem older than he is, especially since teenagers so rarely play in that league—CHL-eligible players are obligated to return to their junior teams before age 20 due to the CHL/AHL agreement, while European prospects often play in pro leagues in their home countries. A simple reason to be optimistic about Liljegren is how much developmental runway he still has ahead of him.
The second thing to note is why the Leafs brought him over at that age. They wanted to incorporate Lily into the Leafs’ system as quickly as possible. His first AHL season was by most accounts a solid. sheltered success; keeping in mind there were only limited number of names to compete with, Lily set the since-broken record for points by a U19 AHL defenceman. (Fun fact: guess who broke it!) All was well.
But what was the next step? Well, Toronto’s coaches did something interesting: they scaled Liljegren’s power play time back somewhat as the year went on—he became a mainstay on PP2, not the PP1 unit where Jeremy Bracco put up bananas assist totals. They upped his penalty kill time considerably. And they got him working on his defensive play.
Liljegren’s calling card has always been elusiveness; he’s not a dazzlingly quick skater, but he’s an agile one with good lateral movement. As he worked on his defensive game for the Marlies this year, he got better at buying time for himself to make the smarter play as well as recognizing how to make it. He was paired with Calle Rosen on the top pairing to begin the year, and although his production slowed after returning from injury, he showed great progress on the defensive side of the puck. To quote Marlies Coach Sheldon Keefe:
“Liljegren coming back from his injury the way he did and blossoming and being such a responsible and reliable defensive player to go with the offensive attributes he has, that helped us tremendously.”
Zooming out a little bit on that point: power play defencemen are a good and useful thing in the NHL. The Leafs have an extremely fine one in Morgan Rielly. But it seems to be a little under-emphasized that the recent trend in the NHL towards 4F-1D power play units has essentially halved the number of jobs for those kind of players. To be a regular NHL defender and get steady PP1 time, you have to be the best option on your team or you’re probably out of luck.
If Liljegren isn’t going to be that kind of NHL player—and even if we’re more optimistic than Scott on that point, he’d have a hell of a time swiping the job in the foreseeable future—it becomes all the more critical that he diversify his skill set. This is something that the Leafs did with some of their forward prospects in Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, training them for penalty kill duty in the AHL before sending them up to the majors as developed two-way players. Everything they’ve done with Liljegren seems consistent to me with that style of development.
And that really seems to me what this is about. One of the ideals of the Shanahan Era Toronto Maple Leafs, as expressed by Kyle Dubas and others, has been to build a cohesive development system where progress is maximized long before the NHL. Toronto made a point of bringing Liljegren over at the first opportunity. They gave him a sheltered first season to settle in and adjust to the league, and they worked on the defensive side of his game in his second season. As a result, Liljegren has blossomed into a reliable all-situations AHL defenceman before his 20th birthday. Excepting that damned ankle sprain, it’s hard for me not to look at Liljegren’s path and think that it’s going according to plan.
If you rate players by points, variations on points and nothing else, you aren’t going to be pleased with Liljegren’s arc. I’d encourage you to look a little deeper than that. No, as Scott says, he probably won’t be a star, and the daydreams about him being the next Erik Karlsson were always wishful thinking. But I think Timothy Liljegren is going to be an everyday player for the Toronto Maple Leafs within the next two seasons. That seems like a positive thing to me.
Kevin has a balanced look at Lily:
Liljegren is becoming a tough prospect to evaluate, as we haven’t seen him play against his own age group in a while, and he’s dealt with a couple of injuries. The scouting report on him has also significantly changed, as he’s continued to improve his defensive game, but has not been the offensive stalwart that he was hyped up to be.
He played big minutes at five-on-five this year, often with an outstanding AHL partner in Calle Rosen. He also took on far more time on the penalty kill, but was passed on the powerplay depth chart by the younger Rasmus Sandin. Those who subscribe to Jeff Veillette’s website will tell you that he had a good shot-attempt differential, which is nice to see, but it’s tough to tell how much of that was the result of him playing major minutes with one of the AHL’s best defencemen.
He needs to take a step forward as a puck mover next year, in order to become one of the top few players on the Marlies. A beautiful stretch pass every now and then is nice, but I want to see him move the puck through the neutral zone like Sandin does. I seem to be higher on his skating than others, and he’s quite effective at preventing zone entries, so he doesn’t have to be a 40-point defenceman in order to make the NHL. With two years of AHL experience already, it’s easy to forget that he’s still very young, and there’s plenty of time for him to emerge as a potential second-pairing defender.
Hardev had the following to say about Liljegren (part of this was in his look at Marlies defencemen, fleshed out with some further thoughts):
Spoiler alert, I put Liljegren ahead of Sandin in my Top 25 Under 25 ballot. I have a few reasons for this. For one, he’s older and has played as a top-pair defenseman against men for longer than Sandin. The second reason is that Liljegren is right handed. The third reason comes from something Liljegren said at the end of the season that backed up an eye-test conundrum I was holding in my head for months previous.
Liljegren told us in his end of the season press conference that he has focused a lot on his defense and had left his offensive output to suffer as a result. He said he liked the step he took in his own zone (I agree there) and he will focus more on scoring next season. I think we’re going to see a very underrated offensive defenseman show up on the Marlies next season and it will take everyone by surprise. Except for you, the clever readers of this blog.
There are two sides to hockey: offense and defense, and last season Liljegren took a massive step forward in his defensive commitment and abilities that I think he could step into the NHL this season. He played on the first pair on the right side all season (it was him and Rosen before it was him and Sandin) and became a really reliable guy in his own end. Liljegren is quietly very strong and was able to do his job of separating the opponent from the puck and getting possession very well. One thing people harp on with Liljegren when they watched him last season was his lack of involvement in the offensive game. That is a thing he brought up in his exit interview that he wants to improve next season. We’ve seen from his time in Sweden that he’s a very good offensive player. Once he gets that confidence and plays more aggressive we’ll start to see a very well-rounded RHD.
I get excited reading about him. Even if it seems like he won’t become the next Erik Karlsson like we were all kind of hoping for, he seems to now be morphing into exactly the kind of defensemen we need. Shoots right, good skater, can push the play up the ice, and is more capable as a defenseman (and maybe PKer?) than initially thought. A guy who’s good at everything, even if he’s not great at the things we hoped for when he was drafted.
Liljegren taking a gap year from offence to focus on his defensive game coincided exactly with my waning desire to ever hear someone tell me a defender’s points stats. I just don’t care. Go back in time to the year before last and Liljegren’s play at the WJC, the last time he played with and against his peers, and what I remember is seeing a genuine growth in his defensive commitment just from the WJSS that prior summer. Now, with two years in pro hockey, as one of the youngest players in the AHL (except for Rasmus Sandin, of course) he’s clearly not progressing that fast, but no one should have ever expected him to. I think he’s got a weakness, and that is that he doesn’t bring the game-in-game-out laser focus attention to detail in his game that Sandin has. I trust the Leafs and Marlies development staff and coaches, and I think they narrowed his focus for very good reasons. That looks like his growth curve isn’t accelerating up, but then, those curves are carved out of points stats.