It’s be a lengthy countdown, at least from my perspective, but we’re finally at the number one spot. It’s probably not surprising that the #1 goes to a player that was Toronto’s last demotion before the season hit pause, and a player that seems to be written in ink on most rosters for the 2020-21 season, even if no one is certain who he’ll play with.
You could probably make a case that Timothy Liljegren is the most talent natural right side defenseman in the Leafs organization already. He might not be as far along as Tyson Barrie or even Justin Holl, but his skating, vision, and puck movement put him in the conversation, and given that it’s very likely that Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci won’t be returning to the Leafs next season, Liljegren looks ready to get his full time shot.
The familiarity of Sheldon Keefe with Timothy Liljegren will probably be a help. He knows he has a powerplay quarterback in him, and that’s going to be a big part of his future role. He knows there isn’t any shortage of defensive deficiencies and despite his work with Liljegren, those still exist. Liljegren will require a strong defensive partner to help pick up the slack and allow him to grow. The ideal option would seem to be someone like Jake Muzzin, less ideal would be Martin Marincin, but it’s also possible that the Leafs explore a youthful pairing next season and we see Sandin and Liljegren continue to play together as they have frequently with the Marlies and have at times with the Leafs.
So it’s pretty clear the way the Leafs are likely leaning, although it’s worth noting in the 11 games that Liljegren played with the Leafs he was largely covering off the absences of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Cody Ceci which skews those numbers a little. Additionally Ceci, Holl, and Barrie being fellow right side defensemen has an impact on their time together, although that is a significant amount of time with Barrie considering they play the same side and are both offensively driven.
It’s also worth noting that Dermott was frequently partnered with Liljegren during their shared time with the Marlies and they did quite well together. If the Leafs want to keep Dermott (as they should) and keep Dermott on the left side (more open to discussion) perhaps a Dermott-Liljegren third pairing gives the Leafs an interesting option, but forces the Leafs to consider moving either Rasmus Sandin or Morgan Rielly to the right side instead of Dermott.
All of this might still be a bit premature. Liljegren’s numbers weren’t ideal with the Leafs last season, but I don’t know what is reasonable to expect of a 20 year defenseman making his debut on a depleted blueline and forced to play with his AHL partner. The Leafs know what Liljegren is, and it’s not the answer to their defensive zone woes. The Leafs might have a little too much of that with Rielly, and Barrie still ahead of Liljegren in the lineup, but if Barrie is out, that probably opens up a bit of room for Liljegren to be Liljegren, and they’d have the flexibility of sheltering him more than they did with Barrie.
A big part of if Liljegren will immediately join the Leafs comes down to the interest in upgrading the blueline over the summer. From a name recognition standpoint the potential departures of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are significant. Arguably replacing them with Sandin and Liljegren doesn’t leave the Leafs too worse for wear, depending on how the training camps go. If upgrades are in order, it seems most likely the upgrading will come on the right side, and that could either see Liljegren platooning in and out of the lineup in a 7th D role, or returning to the Marlies for a final year of work. You could also make the argument that Liljegren is the piece that needs to be dealt if you want to upgrade the blueline, but it’s hard to imagine the Leafs don’t want to see what they have in a former 1st round pick.
Today is Liljegren’s 21st birthday, so it seems extra fitting that we’re talking about him today. He’s also just turned 21, so maybe we need to cool it with the sense of urgency. While I’m sure Liljegren would love to be a Leaf immediately, there is still tremendous value in him being the #1 guy on the Marlies and going into next season as the top callup option. Given Liljegren’s injury history there are also risks with putting too many eggs in his basket, and perhaps the best thing to demonstrate will be continued improvement at staying healthy.
If we do see hockey again this season, or playoffs, there is a good chance that Liljegren will be a player to watch in that training camp as well. A three week boot camp with Keefe and the Leafs blueliners will help us get a better understanding of where he sits in the organization and what to expect in the 2020-21 season.