Timothy Liljegren can be an X-factor for the Leafs if they utilize him properly

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
Every year, there’s a scapegoat on the Leafs defensive corps. If you’re looking for evidence to back up that claim, you can go as far back as the 1980s and the days of Larry Murphy, or to the mid-2000s and the off-and-on tenure of Bryan McCabe, and if you don’t want to go past 2010, you can take your pick between Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, and Justin Holl. Point is, there’s always at least one player on the Leafs’ back end who takes a significant amount of heat compared to his counterparts – sometimes it’s deserved, sometimes it’s not. 
Early on in the season, it looked like John Klingberg was going to take the reins. It was common knowledge that his defensive game was going to be a bit of an adventure. Still, the hope was that he would be able to revive his career playing on an offence-heavy team like the Leafs and make up for some of those defensive woes with contributions on the power play. As we all know, it didn’t play out that way, and he was sidelined for the season with a hip injury only 14 games into the season. 
With Klingberg out of the picture, Timothy Liljegren is the latest victim of the scapegoat title. He fits the bill for it – a young defenceman with untapped offensive potential that shows up in flashes, but doesn’t come often enough to make up for preventable mistakes on the defensive side of the game. The size of the microscope has only grown recently in light of the Leafs’ acquisitions of Ilya Lyubushkin and Joel Edmundson – with the addition of two veterans who seemingly won’t be riding the pine anytime soon, Liljegren’s roster spot has had to come at the expense of Simon Benoit, the hard-hitting Quebecer who has developed from the team’s ninth defenceman on the depth chart to a fan favourite and reliable shutdown guy. 
Even Sheldon Keefe didn’t seem overly confident in the decision to play Liljegren over Benoit, citing the former’s right-handedness as the reason for the latter’s benching rather than a decision based on play.
My colleague Shane Seney wrote a piece the other day talking about why Liljegren needs to be taken out of the lineup and raised some good points about his tendency to take timely penalties lately, his lack of pushback in front of the net, and the pressures of the trade deadline weighing on him. All valid points, and he also used Ilya Samsonov’s stint with the Toronto Marlies and subsequent success since then as a comparison. You can read Shane’s take on the situation here
These are all good points that can’t really be argued, but here’s the difference in the situation – in no world would the Leafs be able to place Liljegren on waivers without him being claimed. Scratching him might take some of the pressure off him temporarily, but he wouldn’t be out of the public eye. He’d still be practicing with the team, his coach would be getting questions about when he’d be getting back into the lineup, and he’d probably still be called upon every now and then to step in when somebody needs a break. Part of the reason Samsonov’s leave from the team worked so well for him was because he was able to work on his mental game without any of the regular pressures from the Toronto market. 
If there’s one thing that’s been proven about Liljegren in recent years, it’s that he plays his best hockey when he’s playing with confidence. The Leafs can’t inject confidence into his veins with a needle, but what they can do is give him opportunities and play him in situations that he’s known to thrive in. So where would they start with this? Enter the power play. 
When Morgan Rielly was sidelined for five games after the cross-check on Ridly Greig, Liljegen’s opportunity skyrocketed. He was promoted to the top power play unit along with Tyler Bertuzzi, and for a team that’s struggled with consistency with the man advantage, they went 8-for-17 during that span with Liljegren notching seven assists in five games. He also played over 22 minutes in four of those five games, getting as high as 24:27 at one point. 
With all due respect to Morgan Rielly, who always elevates his game in the playoffs and has proven to be a professional when it comes to handling adversity on numerous occasions, the Leafs have run the same power play every year since 2020-21. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly. Coincidentally, the power play always seems to dry up late in the season and as the playoffs begin. Rielly was willing to take a step back from power play duties early in the season to try and get Klingberg’s game going, so there’s no reason Keefe shouldn’t do the same with Liljegren – both to help get his game to where he wants it and to give the power play a different look down the stretch. 
It’s early, but Liljegren has seemed to respond well to Keefe’s call to elevate his game. In two games skating alongside Joel Edmundson, he’s played more than any defenceman not named Jake McCabe, tallied a goal and an assist against Philadelphia on Thursday night, and along with his new defensive partner has put up an expected goals (xG) rating of 58.12%. He did take a dumb penalty on Saturday against Montreal, leading to a Canadiens goal, but a flawless effort skating alongside a brand new partner would have been about as pleasant a surprise you could ask for.
I fully understand the apprehension that comes with giving Liljegren meaningful minutes in the playoffs, especially against a team that won’t let you get away with cheating the game like the Boston Bruins. His mistakes tend to come at bad times, and on the forefront, playing someone like him as opposed to a hard-nosed shutdown guy like Benoit in the playoffs seems like a recipe for disaster. But, the reality is, that Benoit’s lack of experience has started to catch up to him recently, and expecting him to carry that reliability on a regular basis in the playoffs could come back to bite the Leafs. And this isn’t even taking into consideration the possibility of the Leafs running with seven defencemen, something they’ve done down the stretch in the past. 
Either way, this team is better when Liljegren is playing with confidence, and with 17 games remaining down the stretch, they don’t exactly need to throw him into the fire. He’s the type of player who plays better when presented with the opportunity to do just that – play. If you bury a puck-moving defenceman on the bottom pair and limit him to 15 minutes a night against opposing teams’ heavy forechecking third and fourth lines, you’re going to see his bad qualities more often than the good ones. If he gets the opportunity to play extra down the stretch and proves he can’t handle it, then yeah, by all means, bench him in the playoffs. But at bare minimum, the Leafs should start by giving him some legitimate power play minutes from here on out and see what comes of it. I’m willing to bet we see a version of him that’s closer to what we saw while Rielly was on the shelf.

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