Who is Timothy Liljegren? This question still lingers over the 22 year old defenseman taken in the June 2017 draft by the Maple Leafs. To be honest, he is much like a lot of young defensemen his age, he is a work in progress. He was considered a sure thing draft prospect back in 2017, but then he contracted mono that year and his stock fell because he missed a large portion of games recovering from the illness. I personally was excited when he landed to the Maple Leafs late in the first round. Based on all the scouting reports at the time, the kid had all the markings of a top NHL defenseman in the making.
I know people’s instant reaction is going to be, how is a guy drafted 5 years ago not made it to to earn a spot already. While yes, he has been in the Maple Leafs’ system for five years, his career and development program has been hit with stoppages due to injury and more recently Covid impacting the young defenseman’s growth.
Timothy hasn’t played a full season with the Marlies since being drafted and has now been tasked to esssentially learn on the job on hockey’s greatest stage with the Maple Leafs. Injuries and the unfortunate circumstances around Covid have all worked against a young player looking to learn new systems, new responsibilities and finally a new culture after coming over to Canada from Sweden.
The Maple Leafs from the time Liljegren has come over have asked him to change up his style of play as well, for a young player it isn’t always easy finding yourself in a role completely different than you are used to with limited practice and game time to work on your development. I would argue any struggles he has had isn’t from lack of talent or a player that has maxed out his potential, but is a direct result of a player who hasn’t had enough game and practice reps to work on his game.
To be fair, outside of maybe one or two games this season, Liljegren hasn’t looked out of place at the NHL level. Does the game come at him sometimes faster than he can process things? Yes it does, but find me a rookie defenseman who doesn’t struggle early on playing in hockey’s best league. He is also learning to play on a smaller ice surface and in a league that is more physical than leagues he played in overseas.
As I have repeatedly stated in the past, the Maple Leafs organization has for decades had a trigger finger on dealing young players before we even know what they are or can be. I would rather give a young player a little longer leash than to trade him and watch him become a star elsewhere. Another thing to consider is this, the Maple Leafs cap structure requires the Leafs fill in some roster spots on the cheap internally so to remain cap compliant while facilitating keep its core four together.
Having Liljegren still on his entry level deal allows the Maple Leafs to fill a roster spot on the bottom two defensive pairing and do so on the cheap as well to leave cap dollars to fill other needs if deemed necessary elsewhere in the lineup.
In my trade deadline blog, I wrote that I had Liljegren as my 7th defenseman in the playoffs. That assessment was made more on not wanting to burden him with the pressure of this upcoming playoffs then with his talent and wanting to add at least one more defenseman with some bulk and size to make things difficult on the defensive side of the puck.
However, I would reconsider where I have him on the Maple Leafs depth chart, if he can have a great backend of the regular season. If he cements his place on the opening night playoff roster, then by acquiring one more defenseman to compliment Liljegren and isolating some of his minutes, you start to have the makings of competitive defense group with maybe the need for one more bigger body in the 7th defenseman spot and the game one defense pairings for me would look like:
At the end of the day, a player’s developmental path isn’t always linear, a small few make it huge impacts right away. Timothy may be taking the long way for some, and even if that is the case, he isn’t a prospect I would be quick to give up. So if there is one player and storyline, I will keeping an eye on it is him, I am partial yes, because I felt it was a great selection when the Maple Leafs drafted him. But I think the circumstances since his draft have also warranted giving him a longer look to see what he and the team has in him long term.