Speaking to reporters following Sunday’s NHLPA Rookie Showcase, Toronto Maple Leafs attendee, Timothy Liljegren, made his intentions for this coming season abundantly clear.
He wants to make the team. Out of training camp, no less.
Well, at least no one can accuse the kid of holding himself to a low standard. On the contrary, this is exactly what teams should be aching to hear from the mouths of their top prospects. All who attend an NHL training camp should do so with their sights fixated on earning an NHL job. If not, then what’s the point?
So, Liljegren’s confidence is not only welcomed, it’s encouraged. Dream big, kids. Shoot your shot.
As to whether he’ll actually get his wish? I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.
First, a disclaimer.
I adore Liljegren. I really do. He’s a phenomenal talent who cleared every developmental hurdle placed before him throughout his first spin in the Leafs organization and now sits poised to decimate those personal bests as he enters into his second.
Many forget, but this outcome was far from a foregone conclusion a year ago.
Amidst recovery from mono, Liljegren’s on-the-fly transition to the smaller ice sheets of North America was made all the more difficult by him reporting to Marlies camp 18 months younger than his most youthful AHL counterpart.
And yet, somehow, Liljegren navigated this foreign territory in masterful fashion, firmly establishing himself as a noticeably gifted puck mover while taking his defensive game to heights leaps and bounds above expectation.
Liljegren’s progression was enough to rocket him all the way up my Marlies power rankings into the #2 spot. The kid earned it. He’s a good player with a solid foundation and a bright future in blue and white.
Only, just “being a good player” won’t prepare you for tackling hockey’s highest level. It’s a process, one Liljegren hasn’t completed quite yet.
We’re all excited about Andreas Johnsson, right? Kasperi Kapanen too? Alright, cool. What do these former-Marlies have in common?
For one, both players eventually cracked the NHL later than initially expected, a decision nonetheless made with a specific intent.
Leafs management, in recent years, has made one aspect of their operation abundantly clear; they will not rush their prospects. This mandate is applicable across the board. Be it a selection in the 1st round or the 7th, players will not log big league minutes until or unless a promotion to the Leafs emerges as the best and solely logical step for their development.
That’s just not the case for Liljegren. Not right now.
Shannahan & Co. have made their beds upon the benefits of being “overripe”, reaping its rewards ever since. Kapanen and Johnsson found success at the next level only after they provided definitive proof of having nothing left to accomplish at the previous one.
As the pair made their respective jumps, they did so riding point-per-game scoring paces maintained over the course of a sufficiently extended sample size, while occupying featured roles on both units of the Marlies’ special teams as well.
The same goes for defencemen as well. Travis Dermott may indeed have kept his head straight in the NHL prior to 2017-18, but only ascended upon reaching the point where AHL opposition began to bore him.
Playing the Odds
What this essentially does is lessen the risk.
On the one hand, tossing a raw but talented swimmer directly into the currents of uncharted waters opens the door to chance. Maybe instincts prove capable enough to allow them to flourish. Maybe they get overwhelmed and drown.
Doing the exact same thing for a swimmer having spent their prior years methodically working through swim class to the point they’ve mastered all they can, on the other hand?
Let’s just say the former is far more likely to drown than the latter.
Which brings us to the crux of the argument. It’s certainly possible for Liljegren to make the team directly out of camp and look right at home from the get-go. There’s just a far greater possibility that he doesn’t.
As a right-handed defenceman, he now holds the coveted distinction of being his organization’s most important NHL-adjacent asset. It’s Liljegren who holds the key to Toronto’s long-term success on the back end, even more so when his ELC inevitably lessens the incoming cap burden of the Big Four.
Needless to say, you DO NOT mess around with that.
Liljegren is precious cargo, and until he matures into a big fish in the AHL’s small pond, that’s exactly where he should stay.
At least for the time being.
Thanks for reading!