Should he stay or should he go: The Maple Leafs need to determine whether Timothy Liljegren is a fit

Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
I’m going to start off by saying that I am still a believer in Timothy Liljegren and that bias is likely to come through in the words below. I loved him as a smart draft day gamble, a player previously billed as a potential first overall contender that slide down to the Leafs pick. I think he’s shown a lot of promise and was deserving of chances in the Leafs lineup even sooner than he received them, and I remain a believer in Liljegren even after his disaster of a Monday night against the Bruins, a team that the previous time he played them he suffered an injury that kept him out for a significant portion of the season. See, I’m already making excuses for him.
The thing is, it’s not at all what I think about Timothy Liljegren that matters. It’s obviously what Sheldon Keefe and Brad Treliving think of him. I’m sure Brad Treliving likes the fact that Liljegren is a younger right shot defenceman that is entering the prime of his career, is on a $1.7M cap hit, and likely wouldn’t cost the Leafs too much on his next deal, but I’m sure Brad Treliving is also very aware that all those qualities I just mentioned are selling points which could all him to trade for a defenceman that is delivering more on their talent today and the Leafs are very much living for today.
The Sheldon Keefe relationship with Timothy Liljegren is a lot more complicated. Keefe has pretty much been the only coach that Liljegren has had in North America and despite that, the trust still doesn’t seem to be there. This isn’t going to turn into a slamming Sheldon Keefe’s coaching post, this is a too way street, and not every coach is 100% right for every player. I’d make a similar case about the relationship between Keefe and Nick Robertson. I think both Robertson and Liljegren have more to give but at the same time don’t think either of them have fully delivered on what Sheldon Keefe has asked of them.
One of the biggest things with Liljegren is that he is one of the Leafs players that has struggled with consistency throughout his time in Toronto and if there is something that we’ve heard both Keefe and Treliving call for this season, it’s consistency. That’s not to say that some of that inconsistency doesn’t come from Keefe as well. Timothy Liljegren has had less consistency in a defensive partner than any other Leaf this season. He’s played 206 minutes with Mark Giordano, which is also not ideal. He’s played 184 minutes with Jake McCabe, which seemed to go better but the combination of McCabe and Benoit working during Liljegren’s injury seemed to bring an end to that. And now Liljegren is up to 154 minutes with T.J. Brodie, which is going about as well as the Giordano stint went and he’s having to take on tougher opposition in the process. Throw in 84 minutes with Morgan Rielly and it is becoming clear that the Leafs don’t exactly have a set plan for the best situation for Liljegren to be in.
There is also the issue that Liljegren doesn’t fit with the direction the Leafs blueline has been transitioning towards in the recent moves (save for the ridiculous Klingberg signing.) The Leafs have been targeting tougher to play against blueliners with Kyle Dubas bringing in Jake McCabe and Treliving unearthing Simon Benoit and facilitating the return of Ilya Lyubushkin. It seems Toronto wants to move towards five guys who will make life a living hell for the opposition and Morgan Rielly. That future doesn’t likely include Timothy Liljegren, who is presently sitting at 59 hits on the season, which doesn’t make him passive, but considering they aren’t crushing, punishing make you afraid to go into the corner with him hits, the point remains that Liljegren isn’t want Treliving is building towards.
The thing is that while Treliving and Keefe are building towards a different looking blueline, they are ignoring that at least on paper they are prioritizing worse defencemen over Liljegren. Options like David Savard, Matt Dumba, Adam Larsson, Nick Seeler, and pretty much anyone not named Sean Walker, don’t have the numbers that Liljegren does this year. There seems to be a perception that Liljegren can’t handle the tougher assignments and seeing him Monday night against David Pastrnak’s line it’s easy to draw that conclusion but the numbers don’t necessarily support it.
The numbers show that Liljegren has played the 4th highest number of minutes against the opposition’s top line according to PuckIQ and of those top four players, Liljegren has the lowest CF% indicating the Leafs getting him out chanced when he’s on the ice. That’s a legitimate concern. However, when it comes to goals, only Brodie has a better GF% than Liljegren showing that there is some hope for him yet. Right sizing the role for Liljegren to either the Leafs second or bottom pairing likely undoes a lot of the concerns about his game, it’s just still a matter of identifying which RHD the Leafs can trust on the ice against the best players on the opposition.
If the Leafs are thinking of pushing Liljegren towards the bottom of their lineup, do they instead embrace what they have in a bottom pairing puck mover already in Conor Timmins and explore the value that Liljegren has in the trade market. Is it possible that there is a GM out there that sees an untapped upside and a next step that Liljegren can take away from Sheldon Keefe? Do the Leafs continue to move in a tougher direction at the cost of the puck control that Liljegren exhibits?
It seems entirely possible the Leafs are looking to move on. And it seems that if they don’t move on, Sheldon Keefe’s ideal scenario for any incoming defenceman is to shuffle Liljegren down the lineup.
To some degree it seems like a decision on Liljegren is somewhat connected to what Brad Treliving feels about Sheldon Keefe. If Treliving sees Keefe as his likely coach beyond this season, it probably makes sense to explore what interest is out there for Liljegren and see if he can help the Leafs bringing in a better return at the trade deadline. If Treliving is less certain about Keefe, cutting ties with a soon to be 25 year old defenceman that could still some top four upside might be premature, especially when it won’t hurt the Leafs in the playoffs despite his sometimes questionable decisions that at least recently seemed to have resulted in pucks ending up in the back of the Leafs net.

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