Approximately a year ago, we asked whether Timothy Liljegren could take the same step forward offensively in his age-20 season as he did defensively during his age-19 season. After 30 points in 40 games with the Toronto Marlies and 11 games under his belt with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it looks like Liljegren has checked the boxes on his development curve.
It was quite dramatic when a draft prospect touted for his elite playmaking and scoring ability suddenly focused his whole season on defense, especially when you often want to see your players doing both. But the Marlies took a gamble with Liljegren and worked him hard in the AHL to become someone who can play top defensive minutes when such a thing was not his strength as a junior.
This season, we saw the method from the madness as Liljegren brought back his scoring touch (as he said he would) thanks to actually being used on the power play, on top of his normal duties on the first pair and on the penalty kill. Liljegren has rounded out into a good two-way defenseman with significantly fewer holes than when he started in Toronto.
Offensively, Liljegren is a strong passer with a good shot of his own, and can move the puck up the ice when he needs to. Defensively, Liljegren is much better positionally than when he started, he’s got a good stick, and he can fight for pucks without bouncing off bigger guys. He has everything he needs to jump into the NHL, all that’s left is gradually building his role.
The voters were pretty consistent on Liljegren. Most had him above Dermott, but there were a few voters who had the older, more established, left-shooting defenseman higher. Liljegren ends up in seventh position again, which is where he started on this ranking in 2017. Plus, #7 is his jersey number on the Marlies (#37 on the Leafs).
Votes - Timothy Liljegren
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Here’s what the voters thought of Liljegren before we get into the finer analysis of his game. Arvind and Fulemin spoke honestly about Liljegren’s awful NHL numbers, which are fair to took at, but are limited in its sample (113 minutes). I ended up focusing on his AHL season, which I saw more of and we have a bigger sample on (40 games at presumably 25+ minutes a night).
Fulemin: I believe in Timothy Liljegren. I believed before. I believe now. He had a rough introduction to the NHL stat-wise, but he was a quite good AHL defenceman at age 20 and I think he will be an NHL defender of some description with a pretty high level of confidence. Whether it’s more than on the third pair, I admit I don’t know, but I keep hoping.
Brigstew: Every year Liljegren seems to take a big step forward, to the point that he’s right on the cusp of being a full-time NHLer. He went from adjusting to professional hockey, to turning himself into an effective defender, to working on his offense, to adding it all in together and being this solid all-round defenseman. Is he the offensive star most of us thought we were getting when he was drafted? Not really. Will he be the next Hjallmarson in terms of pure defensive play? Also no. But I think he can do well at everything. How well he does in the NHL remains to be seen, so we’ll see if his next year is spent adapting to a new level.
Arvind: I like Liljegren just fine, but my god, he had a ROUGH intro to NHL hockey. I was underwhelmed at times with Sandin as an NHL player, but I thought he could basically always be described as fine. Liljegren had Kakko-esque numbers, without the pedigree and upside of being 18 in the NHL. I don’t think he’s doomed or anything, but it was such a rough ride that it did make me revise my expectations downwards for Liljegren and his career.
Skill, Shooting, Strength
At 20 (now 21), Liljegren still has everything he had when he was 18 — minus the mono — plus a new strength in his defensive game. In 2017, Liljegren ranked seventh in our Top 25 Under 25. He was very highly rated for the past two years before that and a lot of scouts were confident in his hockey abilities. The following excerpt is from Kevin Papetti’s opening paragraph on Liljegren in his 2017 T25U25 article.
“Liljegren is a talented offensive defenceman who stands out with top-end speed. He is a confident puck handler and power play quarterback, and his hard and accurate wrist shot makes him a major scoring threat from the backend...He was the #2 prospect on Bob McKenzie’s pre-season ranking last September, and was then regarded as the clear top defenceman in his draft class.” - Kevin Papetti, Pension Plan Puppets
Talented, top-end speed, puck-handling, power play quarterback, good shot. All of these things still exist within Liljegren and have been developed to be at a pro level through the Marlies. Liljegren was incredible offensively last season, and I don’t think his 2018-19 campaign should take away from that. I’ve said it relentlessly that he spent his first full AHL season learning how to play a smart, physical, and reliable pro defensive game as a teenager.
Offensively, Liljegren has a good shot. It’s not reckless like Tyson Barrie or Dion Phaneuf, it’s hard, and it’s accurate. He doesn’t shoot often for a defenseman, he took 1.85 shots per game last season, which was much lower than the 2.5 sphere where Evan Bouchard and Jake Bean lived. Brannstrom shot at about the same rate as Liljegren. When Liljegren has the confidence, he’s purposeful with the puck and moves it at a good pace. He had good wingers in Pontus Aberg, Tanner MacMaster, and Nic Petan and he used them often on the power play. In the AHL, it’s usually a smart bet to have big guys in front and pepper shots on net for rebounds. Liljegren used Korshkov, Archbald, and Marchment well in those ways as well.
Power play points aren’t the be-all-end-all of a defenseman, which is why I’m very impressed with Liljegren’s even-strength production (0.425 EV points per game, close behind only Brannstrom, Bean, and Timmins among U23 defensemen in the AHL). He’s got offense, and it shouldn’t be a problem for him moving forward.
Often when a prospect drops in points from one year to another, even when their defensive play looks better, their ceiling drops and they’re suddenly suited for the third pair or else. Players can have bad seasons, they can have years where they were pushed to improve certain areas and weren’t given offensive minutes. Defense is half the game in hockey, and while you hope to do it less than offense at any given moment, you need competent defensive skills in order to get those offensive moments.
Liljegren wasn’t the smartest player coming out of his draft year so he and the Marlies worked on that part of his game and he’s suddenly not a liability in his own zone. He took a year off the power play, so obviously his points would come down, but this past season he was given top pair, power play, and top penalty kill minutes and he killed it. He did great.
I noted this in last year’s T25U25 post on Liljegren. I can see that he’s a lot stronger physically now than when he was 19. In the AHL, you need to be able to throw your weight (in smart ways) to separate opponents from the puck as a defenseman. Liljegren has become a really good engage defenseman; disrupting breakouts and cycles. He’s also learned how to hold back and not take unnecessary risks like he often did as a rookie. He’s much smarter through coaching now than when he was a raw talent out of Sweden. That’s something I credit to the Marlies and his 2018-19 season. I saw some real development there.
Also in last year’s post, Kevin noted that Liljegren doesn’t necessarily need to become a 40-point defenseman in the AHL in order to project as a second-pair defenseman again in the NHL. In a 76-game season, Liljegren would’ve had 57 points. Sounds like goals met, there.
Looking at Liljegren’s numbers, he has near-identical numbers to Carolina Hurricanes prospect Jake Bean, who was drafted a year earlier at 13th overall. Bean has two NHL games under his belt and was one-two with Liljegren in even-strength and power play primary points per game in the AHL.
Bean played 50% more games because he spent the whole year in the AHL, scoring 48 points in 59 games (0.81 ppg), whereas Liljegren missed 17 Marlies games while hanging out with the Leafs and only scored 30 points in 40 games (0.75 ppg). With his counting stats, Bean won the AHL’s Defenseman of the Year award, meaning if Liljegren had played a full season, he would’ve been right there in the running for the same award.
Erik Brannstrom is one of Liljegren’s direct comparables from their draft year when they were picked one after the other. Brannstrom is a prospect many people are very excited about playing on a Belleville team that were like the Leafs equivalent in the AHL, whereas the Marlies were like the Sens equivalent in the AHL. Brannstrom played only 27 AHL games last season because he joined the Senators for 31 games this season, which is very impressive. He looked great and is poised to become a star in the very near future.
Liljegren doesn’t beat Brannstrom anywhere in terms of production and overall stock, but he’s in the ballpark, which is a good sign. On a strong AHL team, Brannstrom had 0.296 even-strength primary points per game and 0.148 power play primary points per game. Liljegren’s numbers in those categories on a much worse Marlies team were 0.275 and 0.200. Better on the power play, but slightly worse at even strength.
The B-Sens and Marlies were 10th and 11th in the league in power play goals in the season and Liljegren was a big part of getting the Marlies as high up as they ended. His even strength numbers are also right there despite playing on a polar opposite team in terms of talent and scoring. The B-Sens were first in the league by a mile in goals for, scoring half a goal more per game than the Marlies.
I’m not saying Liljegren could play top pair on Ottawa (Brannstrom played second last season), but he would probably fit in the top-four. On the Leafs, I think he has a real case for the third pair spot and the chance to move up higher as he gets used to the league.
Smarts, Speed, Confidence
It’s not hard to admit that Rasmus Sandin is a smarter player than Liljegren. Sandin’s ability to manage the puck, move it up the ice, and be creative with it for the purpose of possession shot him through the Marlies faster than I would’ve thought. Liljegren doesn’t have the same raw talents as Sandin, and probably won’t acclimate to the NHL as quickly as his fellow Swede did, but he will get there. I’m confident in that.
Liljegren needed more coaching in this area and the Marlies took the 2018-19 season to do that for him. He didn’t get power play time, he was put on the first penalty kill unit, and had to go up against top competition, albeit with the Marlies best defenseman, Calle Rosen, next to him. For him to do that at 19 was very impressive and showed a real commitment to becoming a proper two-way defenseman. This season, he put both together and honestly looked so comfortable in the top job.
In 2019-20, he played mostly with Sandin and Teemu Kivihalme, the latter of whom isn’t on the same level as Sandin and Rosen. Liljegren played really well with Kivihalme and took more risks and controlled the game more. When he was with Sandin, he often settled for a secondary role and didn’t push to have the puck on his stick as much. I don’t really blame him for that, because Sandin was so great, but it felt like a waste of his talents. Even with Kivihalme, Liljegren tended to hang at the blueline and let his partner jump in, though he showed more aggressiveness on the power play.
If Sandin and Liljegren are in the NHL next year, I wouldn’t put them on the same pair. I would let Liljegren breathe on his own with a different left-shot defenseman. Perhaps Rosen again or Travis Dermott.
Liljegren isn’t an explosive skater, and he doesn’t skate at his full speed very often either. It’s hard to get style points in the AHL when it comes to GIFs and stuff when that’s the case. Sandin definitely out-shined him here and it’s why Dermott showed like a star in the AHL, too. I don’t think it hurts Liljegren a lot to be just a decent skater, but it would be nice if he could use this break to add a step. He has a good stride, he just needs to add to it.
Here’s a couple fun interviews with Liljegren. The players had a lot of fun with the “Between 2 Marlies” this season.
Liljegren showed some good movement on the play that led to his first NHL point. He moved the puck across the blueline, chipped it off to Alex Kerfoot, and got into an open shooting position while Muzzin shot and scored.
Timothy Liljegren picks up his first NHL point with an assist on this goal by Jake Muzzin. pic.twitter.com/1p8qesr4rJ— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 16, 2020
Here’s some of his first NHL game. The Leafs ran seven defensemen in this game so he was shared between Dermott and Sandin. Offensively, you can see Liljegren being able to push the play and looking for ways to put the puck in dangerous areas. Building his confidence in the NHL will be key so we can see more of it.
Love the pinch here by Liljegren. He wants to drive the cycle. Near the end of the shift, he has a solid turn and dump to get the puck away from traffic. pic.twitter.com/k7C3WjY9Xp— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) January 26, 2020
Where should Timothy Liljegren be ranked?
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Higher than this
7th is about right
Lower than this
Where does Liljegren finish next season (2021)?
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First pair NHL
Second pair NHL
Third pair NHL
First pair AHL