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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

The 2021 Top 20 Leafs Prospects: #4 Timothy Liljegren

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Selected with the 17th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Timothy Liljegren came into the Leafs’ organization with considerable hype. He began his draft season being touted as a potential top-five pick with big-time offensive upside but missed significant time battling mononucleosis and never really got back on track in time to maintain his draft stock. When all was said and done, Liljegren slid to the middle of the first round and it appeared that the Leafs had taken advantage of his unfortunate circumstances to land a potential steal with what would be the final first-round selection of the Lou Lamoriello era.

Fast forward four years and Liljegren has yet to establish himself as an NHL player, suiting up in fewer games than all but two other first-rounders from the 2017 draft class. Though he hasn’t nailed down a job yet, there are still plenty of reasons to believe that he can contribute to this Leafs team as they work to get over the playoff hump – and there is a path to NHL minutes for him in 2021-22.

Position: D

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Age: 22

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 192 lbs

Drafted: 2017, First round, 17th overall

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2020-21 Team: Toronto Marlies, AHL

2020 Prospect Ranking: 4

Timothy Liljegren comes in at #4 on TLN’s Leafs prospect ranking series for the second consecutive year and at 22-years-old, the time is now for him to live up to his potential and break through to the NHL. It has been a bit of a slow burn in terms of his progression but he has shown development in a number of key areas over the last four years with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL, growing into their most trusted blue liner the last two seasons.

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Shortly after being drafted, Liljegren signed his entry level contract with the Leafs and made the jump from Rögle straight to the AHL as an 18-year-old defenseman. He got into 44 games but played mostly third-pairing minutes and finished the regular season with a goal and 16 assists. That first taste of North American professional hockey would be good preparation for the Marlies’ ensuing Calder Cup playoff run where Liljegren tallied four assists in 20 postseason contests to help his team to a championship.

His second season with the Marlies was a bit up and down, and his game failed to take the leap that he and the Leafs had hoped it would. Saddled with more responsibility and tougher minutes, Liljegren’s defensive deficiencies were exposed more frequently and his offensive production actually decreased as he registered just 15 points in 43 regular season games. He added five more assists through 13 playoff games and though he didn’t light the league on fire, it was still a solid season for a teenaged defenseman facing AHL competition.

Liljegren’s transition to North America was relatively smooth, albeit unspectacular. He showed in his first couple of seasons that his vision and puck-moving ability could play at the AHL level but his defensive game was unrefined and left plenty to be desired. He and the Leafs’ development staff made that an area of focus going into his third season and their efforts were rewarded.

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With a pair of AHL seasons under his belt, Liljegren’s overall game blossomed in 2019-20 and he enjoyed his best season as a pro. His defensive play improved significantly as he became more assertive and began processing the game quicker, allowing him to make better reads in defensive zone coverage. Always a strong puck mover, he was now creating more opportunities for himself to start the breakout by shutting down zone entries to force errant passes or dump-ins. With an active stick and good gap control, Liljegren is able to take away the middle of the ice and force opposing puck carriers to the wall.

His offensive production rebounded in a big way too as he doubled his point total from the previous season in three fewer games, finishing with five goals and 25 assists in 40 games. Liljegren was used on the powerplay more often and was able to drive offense from the back end, creating clean zone exits with his mobility and passing ability. The game no longer looked like it was going too fast for him at any point and with that, his confidence grew.

Liljegren doesn’t always have the cleanest skating stride – he can get loose with his technique, allowing his knees to splay out and limit his agility – but he still manages to get around the ice quite well. He has the elusiveness to shake oncoming forecheckers and the speed to separate from them, and he routinely completes difficult stretch passes into the neutral zone. He keeps his head up to scan the play, quickly identifying open ice and passing lanes.

In the offensive zone, Liljegren uses that mobility and vision to control the blue line and distribute the puck from the point. His movement on the blue line causes defenses to react and he has good off-puck awareness to position himself as an outlet or shooting option. Liljegren has good puck skills and can beat the first layer himself, opening up space to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

If that isn’t enough for opposing defenders to deal with, Liljegren’s shot is also a weapon. He has a quick release and a powerful wrister that he can get on net through traffic, and he can hammer home one-timers when given the opportunity.

Liljegren’s strong play with the Marlies in 2019-20 earned him 11 games with the Leafs as they were riddled with injuries on the back end, but the same issues that plagued him in his early days in the AHL were apparent in his first NHL stint. There were flashes of what made him an impactful defenseman with the Marlies but he was unable to adjust to the pace at the top level in limited minutes.

The Leafs reconstructed their defensive core the following offseason with the additions of TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian, and with Rasmus Sandin continuing to pull away from him on the depth chart, it appeared Liljegren would be in tough to earn NHL minutes in 2020-21. It was a bit of a difficult year for him as he spent a large portion of the season on the Leafs’ taxi squad, caught in purgatory between the AHL and NHL and left to hone his craft through practice.

He did suit up for 21 of the Marlies’ 35 games after their season finally got going and, more often than not, looked like a player that was ready to handle NHL minutes. He scored two goals and nine assists for the season and his overall game continued to show improvement in the process. Trusted with big minutes at even strength, Liljegren also played a prominent role on both special teams units for head coach Greg Moore.

With the season winding down and Bogosian nursing an injury, Liljegren was rewarded with a pair of games with the Leafs and looked more composed than he did a year prior. Though his minutes were limited, he moved the puck efficiently for the most part and was proactive in defensive transition. Subtle plays like this are what will help Liljegren lock down an NHL job in the future:

Plays like this are what he has to eliminate to earn the trust of Sheldon Keefe to be deployed in a regular NHL role:

Unlike last season, the Leafs didn’t make any significant additions to their defensive unit and with the departure of Zach Bogosian, there is a clear path to an NHL roster spot for Liljegren to begin the 2021-22 season. Barring any last-minute changes ahead of training camp, he will be battling for the role of seventh defenseman with the likes of Alex Biega and Brennan Menell. Rasmus Sandin is expected to take on a more regular role and appears set to begin the season on the left side of the third pair opposite Travis Dermott.

Even if the Leafs manage to remain healthy on the blue line, Liljegren should see a fair amount of NHL action this coming season. Dermott has the versatility to play on the left or right side and with Sandin still developing as well, the Leafs’ coaching staff will have the flexibility to divide minutes between him and Liljegren however they see fit.

Needless to say, this coming season is a big one for Liljegren. Time is running out for him to grab hold of an NHL role but to the Leafs’ credit, it appears they are ready to give him that chance. It is an important year from the team’s perspective too as they have to see what Liljegren is capable of at the NHL level before he becomes a 23-year-old AHL defenseman and the shine of being a former first-round pick all but vanishes.

“On the backend, we’re expecting Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to continue to push and challenge and take steps there… We feel that depth on both forward and D is an area that we need to address in free agency to give those young players some competition and make sure that, if they’re not ready, that we’ve got the requisite depth to help out there.”

– Kyle Dubas, via tsn.ca

It feels like Liljegren has been around forever but he is only a year older than Sandin and there is still plenty of room for growth in his game. It has been a slow but steady progression since coming to North America and Liljegren appears ready to take the next step in his career. He has all the tools to be successful in the NHL and has refined his overall game in the AHL, becoming a more effective two-way defenseman. It took him some time to adjust to the pace of that league but he did, and there is little reason to believe he won’t be able to do the same in the NHL.

The Leafs took a swing on a high-upside prospect in the opening round of the 2017 draft and have taken their time to develop him into a more well-rounded player. It may have taken longer than many were expecting but the Leafs are hoping their patience with Timothy Liljegren is about to pay off.

 

(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)