Timothy Liljegren came to form in his first full season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but his first taste of NHL playoff action opened his eyes to where he needs to take his game.
“It’s faster, it’s more physical,” Liljegren said. “I think that’s a part of my game where I can improve, especially around the boards and boxing people out.”
The 23-year-old signed a brand new two-year, $2.8 million contract on Monday. He was set to become a restricted free agent on July 13. With five goals and 18 assists in 61 games during the regular season, Liljegren’s improved play (particularly alongside veteran defenceman Mark Giordano, who signed on Mar. 20) earned the Swede a spot in the opening night playoff lineup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He performed well enough in Game 1, but wasn’t as strong in Game 2. One particular play that stood out was when Lightning forward Brandon Hagel cut through the defenceman with ease.
Brandon Hagel scores to make it 4-1. Nick Paul with the effort back in the defensive zone + the primary helper. pic.twitter.com/by05jOrrmC
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) May 5, 2022
Liljegren was subbed out of the lineup for teammate Justin Holl and he never got back into the playoff mix before his team was eliminated by the Lightning in the first round in seven games.
“In the first couple of games, there’s been times where Lily’s inexperience has showed up a little bit,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said on May 6. “It’s been a lot for him to take on here.”
Now Liljegren is on a mission to improve in the areas that make him ready for the next phase in his career. The Leafs’ cap situation made it clear that a short-term deal was going to be ideal for both sides.
Liljegren was particularly happy to get the additional year.
“It’s what we were hoping for,” Liljegren said about the negotiations. “It gives you more time to develop.”
Having Giordano locked down will also help. The two players played well together down the stretch of the regular season, much of the reason for why Liljegren pushed his way for the opening-night playoff game.
“He was important for me and hopefully I can continue to learn from him,” Liljegren said of Giordano
What this means for Rasmus Sandin and the salary cap situation
With Liljegren locked in, the Maple Leafs will turn their attention to Rasmus Sandin, who is a restricted free agent. Sandin has more experience than that of Liljegren, but the need for another left-side defenceman doesn’t appear to fit.
The Leafs tried Sandin on the right side for a game this season alongside Morgan Rielly and Keefe said he likely wouldn’t try it again. It could be worth another shot somewhere further down the lineup.
Liljegren and Sandin are close but have not discussed each other’s status in terms of contracts.
“We’re just trying to be supportive of each other,” Liljegren said of Sandin.
The Leafs have roughly $5.7 million to spend under the salary cap with 19 players under contract. They still have to figure out who is going to be their starting goaltender with incumbent Jack Campbell set to see a substantial raise beyond his $1.65 million cap hit during the 2021-22 season. Forward Ilya Mikheyev is also set to see some sort of raise in the open market from his $1.645 million cap hit from last season.
Pierre Engvall is a restricted free agent and is arbitration-eligible. And of course, there is Petr Mrazek’s contract that occupies $3.8 million over the next two seasons, which can be a hindrance. Expect to see some more news trickle down with the Stanley Cup now awarded. The first buyout period of the offseason begins on July 1. If the Leafs choose to go that route with someone like Mrazek, that could free up roughly $2.8 million in cap space for next season.
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