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Timothy Liljegren is responding well to Sheldon Keefe’s call for more

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
15 days ago
There may as well have been a virtual pitchfork and torch attached to Leafs fans’ accounts on social media when head coach Sheldon Keefe announced that defenceman Simon Benoit would be a scratch against the Montreal Canadiens on March 9. And to be fair, it was warranted in a sense. After Benoit was originally slotted in as the team’s ninth defenceman heading into training camp and subsequently waived, he ended up finding his way into the lineup in mid-November and wasted no time becoming a fan favourite. Known for his steady, physical presence on the back end, a retro-style mullet and moustache, and more recently, a love of milk, Benoit had endeared himself to fans more than you’d ever expect from a depth player. So, when Keefe sat him in a game against his hometown team, it was a tough move to stomach – even for Keefe himself.
The move was primarily made to get then-newly-acquired Joel Edmundson into the lineup, who’s also a left-handed defenceman and plays a similar style to Benoit with about seven extra years of experience under his belt. Both Liljegren and T.J. Brodie had been struggling at the time, and while Benoit’s last couple of games leading up to the stretch weren’t exactly stunning themselves, it still seemed like a bit of a slap in the face to somebody who played a big part in keeping the Leafs’ defensive corps above water amid some unprecedented injuries early in the season.
Let’s focus on that “development” line from the tweet above. The 2023-24 season was supposed to be a big one for Liljegren, after being somewhat of a fringe player towards the end of last season. He started the season well, playing strong defensively and looking like the guy who they expected to take that step forward. Then, he suffered a high-ankle sprain in a November 2 game against the Boston Bruins and missed the next six weeks. He looked okay upon returning, but there was a stretch in mid-January specifically where he was struggling in just about every aspect of the game. He went 11 straight games without a point and saw his ice time dip significantly over that time, only logging above 20 minutes in two of those 11 games and seeing it fall as low as 13:38 at one point.
Things seemed to turn a corner after Morgan Rielly was suspended for his cross-check on Ridly Greig. Missing their top puck-moving defenceman and top power play defenceman gave them no other option but to play Liljegren more often. And guess what happened? The Leafs won their next seven games in a row, with Liljegren adding seven assists in those seven games and logging over 21 minutes in every game during the suspension. His busiest game was the second of that winning streak, where he played 24:27. It’s also worth mentioning that his quarterbacking the power play during that stretch played a big part in the Leafs’ historic month with the man advantage, going 8-for-17 on the power play during that span.
In the weeks that followed, things took a little bit of a dip for him again. In the wake of the Leafs re-acquiring Ilya Lyubushkin from the Anaheim Ducks, Keefe had to do some tinkering with his defensive pairings. Once again, his play dipped – both offensively and defensively. He only managed one assist in the next five games and his ice time dipped again, reaching north of 20 minutes only once in those five games. That brought us to the March 9 game against the Canadiens, and the quote about sitting Benoit that we read at the start of the article. Benoit has gotten back into the lineup a couple of times since then, both because of Lyubushkin getting sick and Brodie getting a few games off for the purpose of a “mental reset”, according to Keefe. In those games, there’s been one consistent – Edmundson and Liljegren paired together.
While Edmundson has had his ups and downs in his first seven games as a Leaf, you know exactly what you’re getting from him every night. Besides, his impact on Liljegren might be worth his presence alone. In those seven games, since the two have been paired together, Liljegren has played upwards of 20 minutes in each of the last five and registered six points along the way. The pair hasn’t been perfect, but they’ve been looking more and more comfortable each game, and they’ve spent far and away the most time together in that time. They’ve combined for 85 minutes of ice time as a pairing, almost 30 minutes higher than the next pair of Brodie and Jake McCabe. They have the highest goals-for percentage through that time at 83.33%, the highest expected-goals-for at 3.89, and they’ve been on the ice for five goals in comparison to only one against at 5v5 in those games.
There’s one consistent here when it comes to comparing Liljegren’s good stretches to his bad ones, and you don’t have to look hard for it. Simply put – he succeeds when he has the trust of his coach. There’s a reason that his best stretches of the season have come while logging top-pair minutes in the absence of Rielly and since being paired with Edmundson. Sure, it can raise some caution when you see him have a brain fart on defence or fan on a breakout attempt, but those mistakes tend to happen more often when he’s being limited. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s still only 24 years old and still has room to grow. To allow him to grow, you need to give him the ice time and the trust to go out and get the job done. When he has that, he’s a completely different player.
The confidence doesn’t only seep out on offence. He’s been displaying it on the defensive side of things, too.
In each of the Leafs’ last two wins, he blocked six and five shots, respectively. He’s fourth on the team in blocked shots this season with 113, already a step up from his 97 through 63 games last season. He’s on track to match his hits from last season, or at least land in the ballpark, with 76 in 51 games so far after logging 107 in 67 games last year.
You may not want to play Liljegren in the playoffs when he makes a mistake on defence, but when he’s playing with confidence, he’s arguably the Leafs’ best all-around defenceman. The problem is, we’ve only seen that level in minor spurts. But, every time he’s taken a dip in his play, it’s because his ice time has taken a hit for one reason or another. To be at that level, he needs to play. It’s probably going to be tempting for Keefe to play somebody like Brodie in the playoffs despite his struggles considering how reliable he’s been in the past, but it can’t come at the expense of Liljegren if they want to properly optimize their defensive corps.

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