The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be a in a very difficult situation in regards to their blue line. Recently, they received some concerning news that veteran defender Jake Muzzin would be out long term until February. He will be re-evaluated with his cervical spine injury. On top of that T.J. Brodie will also be out with an oblique injury.
While it’s tough to see two of the team’s top defenders out, the Maple Leafs will have to look internally to fill the void for the time being. They’re already starting to see some benefits and reward with the early play of Timothy Liljegren, as he’s been showcasing his ability to handle top-pairing minutes.
Many were wondering when Liljegren might get an opportunity to shine. With the door opening for him with injuries, lack of depth on the right side and even Justin Holl’s questionable play, Liljegren has started to emerge as a possible top-pairing defender for the future. It took some time, and while he was back on the third pairing against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has shown that he can be reliable when given more minutes and responsibilities.
Evolving and Developing
After spending a good amount of time in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies, Liljegren finally graduated to the NHL and looked to have transitioned very well. Ever since he was drafted, he has always shown great progression in his game.
One area that Liljegren has shown some untapped potential is his offensive production. He was consistent as a third pairing defender last season with 23 points in 68 games. While he’s developed as two-way defender, Liljegren notched his first two-goals of the season in a 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. He even alluded to using his shot more often after that game where he had two fantastic shots.
“I always kind of had a good shot, I just never really used it,” Liljegren said according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “I’ve been working on it a lot last year and this year as well when I was injured.”
While he can make a strong stretch pass and has great playmaking vision, by developing his shooting accuracy and adding more power to his shot, that will make him an overall offensive threat. Liljegren even scored four goals in the final stretch of last season. Looking at his numbers to start the season, Liljegren has strong production. Despite playing only six games, at five-on-five with a minimum of 80 minutes played, he has the second-best goals for percentage at 66.67% and a strong high danger scoring chances for percentage of 54.29%.
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Even last season, he had a 57.6 GF% against all competition and a 64% against elite level competition. No matter where he is in the lineup, Liljegren is at the fore front of creating and driving the offense from the backend.
Whether it’s his smooth skating and transitional play or improved defensive play, Liljegren has made the commitment to learning and evolving as a player. He’s starting to play with great confidence on both sides of the puck and it’s showing with his play early on since his return from hernia surgery.
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Yes, he did have a defensive lapse with a giveaway in the game against the Golden Knights, but for the most part, Liljegren has looked comfortable when he’s on the ice, a big sign for a player who continues to move up the team’s defensive depth chart.
Learned From the Best
When the Maple Leafs acquired Mark Giordano from the Seattle Kraken last season, I wrote about the impact he would have on a developing Liljegren as they share some similarities in their play. They had instant chemistry, they were relied on heavily and gave the Maple Leafs a balanced pair.
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They would be able to provide steady defense in their own end, make a timely hit and engage offensively when given the chance. To this day, acquiring Giordano remained the best thing for Liljegren’s development as he learned from a successful and accomplished veteran.
At 23 years old, Liljegren is still learning as he embarks on his second full season in the NHL. There are bound to be some mistakes but the fact that he learns from those mistakes, bounces back and dials in, he’s already displaying the confidence and mentality of a veteran player at such a young age.
Defensively, he’s learning to utilize his size in engaging in battles while also looking to keep players to the outside. This is something that Giordano has been successful in executing. He still needs to learn to not crack under pressure, but for the most part Liljegren has managed to escape high pressure situations. With Giordano locked in for another season, this is great for Liljegren if they re-unite at some point down the line.
Stay the Course
Even if that stint on the first pairing or top-four was just a glimpse of what’s to come, Liljegren has shown promise that he can rise to the occasion and play an important role for the Maple Leafs.
That is what you want to see in your young players that have come up through the system. You want them to reach their true potential and be an integral part of the team’s success. Whether or not he gets more opportunities down the line, Liljegren will always be a player that will move up the roster.
No matter what, Liljegren has shown that he needs to stay the course and continue to perform at the level needed in order to play in those important roles.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and Puck IQ.
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