“TIMOTHY LILJEGREN” NHL Ready or AHL Steady?

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 18: Timothy Liljegren #37 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates in his 1st NHL game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Scotiabank Arena on January 18, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blackhawks defeated the Maple Leafs 6-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

When Timothy Liljegren fell to number 17 in the 2017 NHL draft it looked as though the Leafs had just landed themselves a legitimate first line D-man. Liljegren was projected to be a top 5 pick, but a bout of mononucleosis left him out of the lineup for the better part of his draft year. When he returned to join his Rögle BK teammates in Sweden Liljegren looked sluggish and wasn’t the same dynamic player that had garnered him the praises of being a top 5 pick. By the time the Leafs were on the board and ready to make their selection, to see the pedigree of Liljegren still available, Mark Hunter called the decision to take the slick skating Swede a “no brainer.” In his first season with the Leaf organization Liljegren logged minutes on the blueline with the Toronto Marlies. Being the youngest defencemen in the AHL he helped contribute to the Marlies beating the Texas Stars for the Calder Cup.

Liljegren has barely had a cup of coffee in the big leagues skating in just 13 games for the Leafs, chipping in 1 assist and adding in 4 penalty minutes. When Liljegren was selected with the 17th overall pick the Leafs management thought they had found themselves the steal of the draft. There is no time like the present for Liljegren to prove those words true. With salary cap constraints plaguing the Leafs, the depth chart has taken a major blow. During the 2020-21 season for the Marlies, Liljegren’s stat line was a solid 2G-9A-11P and 10 PIM in 21 Games. If he is capable at producing at that level for the big-league club, he will definitely be able to solidify himself as a top four blueliner at the NHL level. Liljegren has a good shot and explosive speed, and he can be gritty when he has to be. His style of play has been compared to Jake Gardiner, and I know how that is going to make Leaf fans stomachs turn. However, I see Liljegren as a more reliable defender with a bit more of an edge than Gardiner. With the Leafs (barring any injury) dressing Morgan Riley, T.J. Broadie, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, and Rasmus Sandin opening night, Liljegren is most likely going to be the odd man out and the next man up if anyone falters, or the injury bug creeps along. 2022 is the make-or-break time for Liljegren to prove himself at the NHL level. If nothing more, he needs to be a reliable 7th D-man the Leafs can count on when one of the starters go down. Ideally, he can be someone that can step in to a top four pairing and contribute down the stretch to what will hopefully be a long playoff run for the Leafs this season. The win-now window with the big four up front Mathews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander may soon be closing. With the lack of salary cap space to make any big splashes during free agency, the Leafs are going to need to count on the prospects within to take them to the next level. Some analyst had Liljegren as high as 3 on their board in the 2017 draft. The fact he fell to 17 means 1 of 2 things. Either other teams noticed something the Leafs didn’t, and he was an overrated pick, or the Leafs really did get the steal of the draft when they had a top 5 pick fall into their lap at number 17. Now it’s up to Liljegren to prove the league wrong and the Leafs right, by slotting in as an NHL ready blueliner that can handle any situation. Defensemen notably take longer to mature at the NHL level, with Liljegren still only 22 years of age he has time to develop, but unfortunately for him the Leafs shallow depth chart doesn’t permit much hand holding. He is going to be counted on at some point this season to step-up and prove that he is a capable NHL ready D-man. If he fails to do-so, he could find himself relegated to the Marlies for life. The Leafs have a long history of draft day mistakes. For once, maybe they had a little luck on their side when Liljegren slipped through the cracks. Time will tell!   

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