Maple Leafs’ Liljegren Is the Perfect Replacement for Holl

When the Toronto Maple Leafs chose to protect Justin Holl and expose Alexander Kerfoot and Jared McCann in the Seattle Kraken Expansion draft, it instilled faith in the defender that he may take a big step forward with his play. Many were confused, as Holl appeared to have his moments as Jake Muzzin’s defensive partner.

In 2020-21, he had a hot start and looked to be having a breakout season. However, inconsistencies in his overall play seemed to take a dive at the mid-way point of the season. At times he was noticeable with his ability to jump into the play and at others he didn’t look like a legitimate top-four defender. 

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Holl missed the team’s third game of the 2021-22 season against the Ottawa Senators due to cold symptoms. It opened the door for Timothy Liljegren who made the team after a standout performance during the preseason. It’s a lot of pressure for a player with only 13 games of previous NHL experience to be put into an important role. Liljegren answered the call and proved that he should see consistent minutes in the lineup. While we shouldn’t look too much into one game, there’s still a lot of promise for him in the future, as he serves as the perfect replacement for Holl on the right side.

Liljegren More Motivated Than Ever

Months ago, I wrote an article on why Liljegren deserved the opportunity to be an NHLer after being called up last season. Fast forward to the beginning of training camp, he was one of many battling it out to be considered as the sixth or seventh defenceman on the team. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

General manager Kyle Dubas expected Liljegren to come into camp to make a name for himself and seize the opportunity. With the reassurance of his general manager, Liljegren looked impressive in the first game of the preseason against the Montreal Canadiens. Being paired up alongside Muzzin, in 16 minutes at five-on-five when they were on the ice, the pair had a 71.43 Corsi For percentage and a scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) of 76.92. An extremely small sample, but that’s a great way to show that you can play meaningful minutes and provide an impact despite having minimal experience.

In the three games that Liljegren played in the preseason, he had a 57.63 CF%, a shots for percentage (SF%) of 62.79 and a SCF% of 53.13. While preseason stats and figures may not matter to some, for someone like Liljegren who is fighting for a job, they are absolutely important.

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Many would classify Liljegren as a bust because he’s been in the American Hockey League since his draft year and hasn’t reached his true potential. In the four years, he’s developed a more well-rounded game that could bring more stability and consistency than Holl. He’s a strong transitional player and is more aware on the defensive side of the puck, in one-on-one situations and break up of zone entries. 

Holl Could be Expendable

There was a point where Holl was becoming a reliable second pairing defenseman with his play and contract, as he has a cap hit of $2 million this season and next. That’s great value for someone to have in the top-four. After a strong 2019-20 season, he continued to show that defensive mindset along with an added offensive element early on in 2020-21. 

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After that, it seemed that Holl was trying to do a little too much as he would get caught out of position, miss his assignments in his own end and seemed flat footed at times. The struggles really showed when he wasn’t with Muzzin. Last season alone, Holl had a 45.56 CF% and a goals for percentage (GF%) of 35.71 when playing without him. It seemed like those habits carried over in the first two games of the season, making a number of questionable decisions within his own end. 

In three games together, Muzzin and Holl haven’t faired well in regards to their possession numbers. The pair owns a 43.01 CF% and have been on the ice for four goals against and zero for at 5-on5. While Muzzin didn’t play as well as we had hoped, Holl seemed to be a step behind in every situation that he was in. 

The Senators are a team that’s improving and have a number of dangerous players up front. Even though Muzzin and Liljegren had a 45.45 CF%, they had an expected goals against (xGA) of 0.34. As a comparison, Muzzin and Holl together have an xGA of 2.09. They didn’t have scoring chances like they did when they were playing against the Canadiens, but they were composed in their own end. Especially Liljegren and his ability to get into lanes and break plays up to negate chances.

While Holl would assume his role when he comes back, one would have to think that if Liljegren continues to impress when given the opportunity to play, could Holl be expendable? 

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Liljegren is younger and definitely would come at a cheaper price on his next deal. If he’s consistent with his play, the Maple Leafs already have someone to jump into that role right away. He’s shown that he can provide the kind of play the team needs. He stood out more than Travis Dermott in preseason, as head coach Sheldon Keefe said he wanted more consistency from Dermott in regards to his decision-making. Though Dermott has improved his play significantly early on in the season. 

Staying the Course

Even though he played in just one game and then came out of the lineup with Holl returning, this shouldn’t discourage Liljegren at all. He showed that he’s able to keep up and take on the responsibility of taking an important role when he needs to. Despite looking good in the game he played, he should get more opportunities to play.

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Marlies
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Marlies (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

If Holl does go down again or if Dermott has a rough stretch, Keefe knows he can rely on Liljegren to jump in and take their place. He’s calm and composed whenever he plays and doesn’t make dangerous plays that can put the team in a bad spot. With what we’ve seen in his play, if he does come into the lineup again, he’s definitely going to make it a difficult decision to take him out as he plays a more steady and sound game defensively.

He’s definitely going to be a regular at some point in the future.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.

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