The Maple Leafs kicked off the weekend rookie tournament with a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens last night. Playing in the game was a mix of new draft picks, old draft picks, and some undrafted players brought in for a try-out.
The annual tournament’s purpose is to add to the evaluation of the players in competitive games. Sure, there have been scrimmages and practices to watch in the past week, and the players have all been scouted at their junior or international tournament teams in the past year, but there’s no better way to evaluate a player than putting them into a real game situation like last night. You can watch the Game in 6 here on NHL.com.
That brings us to what everyone is talking about last night’s game: the performance of the Leafs first round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Timothy Liljegren.
To say it was a rough night for him is an understatement. To say he thought it was a rough night is an understatement. It was brutal. But, is it really a big deal?
Before we get to Liljegren, let’s first talk about the other players, as there were some early impressions worth noting. I emphasize these are quick observations based on one game where I was trying to look at everyone on the ice as much as possible.
Kasimir Kaskisuo started in net, and there was a planned change halfway through the game to Ian Scott. The lines at the start of the game were as follows.
Lines for Toronto— Todd Crocker (@HockeyCrock) September 8, 2017
Grundstrom Winquist Bracco
Marchment Dupuy Korostelev
Dzierkals Bobylev Pospisil
Piccinich McGregor Coskey
Parings vs Canadiens— Todd Crocker (@HockeyCrock) September 8, 2017
Notable absences from the lineup—and for the next game too—are Adam Brooks, finishing recovery from mono in the summer; and Travis Dermott, with an unspecified illness. They would both have been a big help last night.
Eemeli Rasanen took an injury to his leg or ankle early on, and is not expected to return for the next game. Coach Sheldon Keefe mixed up the defensive lines a bit after that, but Liljegren was out quite a bit with different partners.
Carl Grundstrom and Jeremy Bracco
The line of Grundstrom, Winquist, and Bracco got the bulk of the ice time in the game, and they deserved it.
Grundstrom won’t be playing here this season and that’s too bad. He was fast, really really fast. You could see he has real hockey-sense to anticipate what is likely to happen and know where to position himself.
Both Grundstrom and Bracco were mixing it up in front of the net, and behind. They worked together for a goal in the second period on a power play. Bracco shooting a few feet in front of the blue line and Grundstrom tipping it in (originally noted as a Bracco goal).
Bracco had one particularly great setup in the third period from behind the Habs net which created a great scoring chance, but unfortunately there was no payoff.
He tried to do the “Nielsen shot” several times, but none went in. He took a dumb penalty at a point in the game where it was important for him not to take a penalty. To summarise, it was pretty much the same Nielsen we saw last season with the Marlies.
He made a point to acknowledge he made mistakes after the game, which is good, but this is getting to be a repetitive explanation for him. I was high on Nielsen at this time one year ago. I thought he was better than a lot of others who write here that didn’t like him, but I slowly and steadily came to agree with them over the course of the 2016-17 season.
There’s a lot of young hot-shots moving up the Leafs defensive depth chart. Nielsen is looking like he’s standing still watching them all pass by.
Middleton is enormous. You would expect that since he is listed as 6’5, and 235 pounds, but that simply doesn’t prepare you for seeing him out on the ice where he looks like Zdeno Chara playing among a group of children.
Fulemin’s favourite prospect got into the obligatory fight of the game. It was against the Habs Michael Pezzetta, and was complete with the dramatic glove tossing and skating in circles before the heavy-weight fists started flying as though each one added +10% to your Make the Team stats. Unfortunately for Middleton, he took one right in the face and that may have ended his tournament as he is now out with an “upper body” injury.
Liljegren had what is probably one of his worst games in recent memory, and he knew it. He looked almost distraught heading to the locker room at the end of the game.
Here are some of the plays that led to Habs goals everyone is talking about. Liljegren is wearing 78.
This first goal of the game starts with Middleton trying to clear the puck out of the Leafs zone, which fails. The Habs get possession onside, and Thomas Ebbing picks it up for the Habs, turnstiles both Middleton and Liljegren, and scores on Kaskisuo.
Ugly. But it’s the first ten minutes of the first game of the pre-pre-season.
Liljegren gets the puck, takes a shot and then notices a stretch pass out by the Habs and you can tell he knows things are not good. He looks a bit stunned, a bit slow, but where is Fedor Gordeev at the end? Out of the frame because he’s so many strides behind. It’s ugly, but, again, this isn’t Liljegren imploding leading to the goal all on his own.
Here the Habs dump the puck in. Goalie Scott goes behind the net and leaves the puck there for Liljegren to pick up. He gets swarmed, Nielsen is over in the corner because he wants to hit some Habs player but flubs it and then watches from behind as said Habs player moves toward the front of the net with stick out in front of Liljegren. Liljegren now sees nothing but red in front of him. He isn’t quite sure what to do so he tries to pass it forward, hoping for the best. It doesn’t work out very well. It’s a flub, but basically the whole team flubbed the response here.
So, how do you react to some defensive lapses, a big flub, and a -4 on the night in the public debut of a shiny new first-round draft pick?
You can start by taking a breath, and zoom out to the big picture here. He’s playing with guys he doesn’t know that are below his level of ability and causing screw-ups all on their own.
It’s a rookie tournament and his first competitive game with teammates he barely knows and will likely not play with again. Keefe certainly thought the blame wasn’t lying with him. With respect to the third goal he said “No one was in the spots where they’re supposed to be and if they were he would have had more than the one option he was trying to go and a guy like him would have found it.” He doesn’t seem to have lost any confidence in his abilities after this game.
We will see if Liljegren can bounce back when the Maple Leafs rookies will face the Senators’ rookies on Sunday at 4:00 pm EDT.