The Toronto Maple Leafs are in their second year of a rebuild. The idea is to build through the draft and develop a bevy of prospects that are able to transition into full-time NHL players.
The Leafs have already seen some early success in that regard, as young guns like William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have all made successful transitions to the big club.
There is also the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ AHL affiliate. They have been fantastic the last few years and are showing no signs of slowing down as they develop the future of the franchise.
The Leafs have done such a good job drafting the last couple of years, especially in the first round. Those last three picks have become the talented trio of forwards that currently grace the ice of the Air Canada Centre. Now, the Maple Leafs need to focus on picking a young defenseman in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Liljegren, who currently plays for Swedish club Rögle BK, is arguably the best defenseman available in this year’s draft. Many scouts have him ranked second overall, right behind Brandon Wheat Kings forward Nolan Patrick. The Swede has many strengths including his skating, vision and hockey sense. He has outstanding mobility and can easily quarterback a power-play.
He’s great in both the offensive and defensive zones. He’s able to thread the needle to begin a breakout or accurately shoot to set up a scoring chance for a teammate. Liljegren sat out the early portion of the season with mono, something that may hurt his draft stock in June.
The key will be seeing how he responds. In a perfect world, he slowly builds up his stamina and has a good showing at the World Juniors as well as the second half of the season. He’s simply too much of a talent to not be drafted high in the first round.
Many fans will remember hard-hitting defenseman Adam Foote. He played 19 seasons in the NHL between the Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets and won two Stanley Cups during his career.
Adam’s son Cal has some of the same attributes that his father had during his playing days. He’s an intelligent, defense-first type of player who uses body positioning and a very active stick to break up plays. Early on in his career, he played a very physical game. In his time with the Kelowna Rockets however, he has also emerged as more of an offensive threat.
— Larry Fisher (@LarryFisher_KDC) November 9, 2016
The Rockets defender is currently listed at 6 foot 3 and a half inches, and a solid 198 pounds. He will add size and muscle to his frame as he matures. He currently has 12 assists in 19 games and is on track to have a career year for Kelowna of the WHL.
The third defenseman the Maple Leafs could key in on is a short distance away playing for the Mississauga Steelheads. Nick Hague already has NHL size and stands at an imposing 6 foot 6 inches and 207 pounds.
He’s a smooth skater who is able to use his body positioning in either the offensive or defensive zone. He also has a smart stick and uses it to eliminate his opponent’s passing lane. He also has a long reach and a booming shot which makes him a constant threat on the attack.
He is able to play with a nasty streak, especially when battling along the boards. He’s a tough customer who has shown flashes of improvement. He had 24 points all of last year, whereas this season he’s already up to 15 in a mere 16 games. Most nights he is considered one of the best players on the ice for the Steelheads.
With the Maple Leafs’ need for defensive depth, one of these three players would be a huge addition to the blueline in the future. Acquiring Liljegren would require a bottom five finish, but Foote or Hague could be available in the top fifteen.
Good defense is essential is building a contender and the Leafs will have to continue to draft and develop smartly if they hope to take the next step.