Toronto Maple Leafs: Marlies Mid-Terms – Timothy Liljegren

LAVAL, QC, CANADA - MARCH 6: Timothy Liljegren #7 of the Toronto Marlies looking to control the puck in mid-air against the Laval Rocket at Place Bell on March 6, 2019 in Laval, Quebec. (Photo by Stephane Dube /Getty Images)
LAVAL, QC, CANADA - MARCH 6: Timothy Liljegren #7 of the Toronto Marlies looking to control the puck in mid-air against the Laval Rocket at Place Bell on March 6, 2019 in Laval, Quebec. (Photo by Stephane Dube /Getty Images) /

There are many uncertain aspects of the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, but their prospect pipeline is not one of them.

The Toronto Marlies are currently undefeated throughout the entirety of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. Pretty impressive, right? This is a surge that few saw coming prior to the end of the regular season – when a slew of injuries and call ups threatened to deplete an already drained roster.

Yet, here the Marlies stand; the lone remaining team to bear a zero in their loss column.

The primary driving force behind this postseason success has undoubtedly been the team’s stable of talented prospects. These past few weeks have served as a tremendous period of growth for the young Marlies. And with the postseason now reaching its half-way point, there is perhaps no better time than the present to hand these kids their mid-term report cards.

So, that’s exactly what I plan to do. Over the next few days, we’ll be evaluating the postseason performance of each youngster, one by one.

Who has surprised? Who needs improvement? These are all questions you’ll need to read on to find out.

Today’s subject is Timothy Liljegren. 

Timothy Liljegren

Postseason Stats: 0 goals, 3 assists; 3 points in 7 games

Grade: A-

FUN FACT: The title of “Largest Rollercoast in Canada” belongs to the Leviathan, a twisting monstrosity of metal and fear at Canada’s Wonderland measuring in at a whopping 93 metres tall.

Crazy stuff.

FUN FACT #2: The title of “Second Largest Rollercoaster in Canada” belongs to none other than the hype train Timothy Liljegren has ridden down since being selected 17th overall by the Maple Leafs at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

Liljegren has been many things to Leaf fans over the course of his 22-month-and-counting tenure; draft steal, the next Erik Karlsson, a disappointment, injury prone, overrated. All of which are entirely unfair. Of those five particular monikers, only one happens to suit Liljegren’s performance as a Marlie to this point, and, let me tell you, it’s not “disappointment”.

Frankly, Liljegren’s topsy-turvy public standing all comes down to expectation. It’s amazing the weight some can heap upon the shoulders of a teenager not only playing what is arguably the most difficult position in hockey, but doing so while simultaneously adjusting last year to life on an entirely foreign continent within an entirely foreign league and, if that wasn’t enough, acclimatizing to the smaller North American ice, as well.

Needless to say, that’s not easy. “Hard”, in fact, would be the adjective of choice.

Though even when facing those challenges – the kind of which fellow U.S. and Canadian-born prospects don’t, by the way – Liljegren still finished the 2017-18 campaign having earned the highest points-per-game mark, and third highest overall point total, of any 18-year-old defenceman in AHL history.

The emergence of Rasmus Sandin should not overshadow that. Teams are allowed to have more than one good prospect. It’s not against the rules.

Of course, it hasn’t been all fun and games to this point. A 30-game midseason absence, courtesy of a high ankle sprain, did manage to derail Liljegren’s sophomore progress somewhat in his second year, which is to be expected. Spending that much time on the shelf would hamper anyone, after all. Yet, after an initial struggle to regain himself upon return, the 20-year-old now appears to have taken the strides his injury once threatened to prevent.

I have never seen a more confident Liljegren than the one who currently logs crucial minutes on the top pair of an undefeated Marlies team. The kid looks polished – equal parts comfortable in taking risks, while still acting as a defensively responsible pillar nonetheless.

Of the Marlies’ six defensemen, only Andreas Borgman began more shifts in the defensive zone than Liljegren did throughout Toronto’s second-round sweep of the Cleveland Monsters. Sheldon Keefe clearly trusts him and, frankly, why shouldn’t he? According to data compiled by The Faceoff Circle, Liljegren’s OZS% was the blueline’s second-lowest behind Borgman’s once again, while his sterling 65.2% CF/60 at 5v5 not only topped all defenders – including Sandin, mind you – but led the entire Marlies roster, as well.

Case in point: Liljegren receives among the toughest deployment of any of his teammates AND STILL manages to drive play at a team-best rate.

What more can you ask from a defenceman? And, particularly, one still not yet old enough to legally buy a drink in the United States?

Aiding in Liljegren’s newfound confidence is a sense of simplicity. The young Swede once used to panic when facing instances of pressure, overthinking otherwise routine plays to the detriment of the Marlies’ overall structure. That has not been in the case in these playoffs.

Liljegren is still not afraid to attempt the patented three-line stretch passes which rule your Twitter timeline in gif form, but he is now far more content in making a simple, more muted play to escape danger rather than trying to solve it all by himself.

Take the clip below, for example.

Carrying the puck out of his own zone, Liljegren’s path is quickly crowded by two Cleveland defenders. Last season, or even earlier in this one, Liljegren would have presumably attacked this dilemma in a bubble; either by attempting to thread the needle along the boards to beat both opponents, or by chipping it past in the hope of regaining control before reaching the blueline.

Both are decidedly low percentage plays, each likely ending in a forfeit of possession.

Liljegren does not do this here, though. Instead, he draws both Cleveland defenders towards him while keeping his head up, therein opening a lane to the Monsters’ zone in the middle of the ice. And when his opponents then inevitably bite, Liljegren swiftly slides the puck over to an already-in-stride Pierre Engvall who, seconds later, triggers a zone entry using the very path Liljegren created.

It’s not a flashy sequence. But it’s one that illustrates the subtle poise Liljegren has demonstrated nonetheless.

These incremental improvements have been prevalent all through the playoffs.

While bearing terrific lateral ability, straightaway speed has been an area of weakness for Liljegren ever since his arrival in Toronto, as his countless hours spent working with guru Barb Underhill can attest. Namely, Liljegren’s skating stance was noticeably hunched over upon first glance, causing an uneven centre of gravity which limited him to short, choppy strides.

It was a problem. Below, lies the solution.

That seems to no longer be an issue.

Liljegren is far more upright in his acceleration now – as evidenced in the clip above – with long, powerful strides that allow him to end up on the winning side of a number of one-on-one footraces. The ability to beat out opponents for loose pucks is yet another weapon of which Liljegren can add to his arsenal. If he wins these battles, great! But even if he loses, Liljegren’s constantly moving feet can still work to draw a penalty, just as it did in the sequence above.

However, Liljegren is a defenceman. How good is he at defending? The answer: pretty good.

It’s Liljegren’s positional awareness that has seemingly taken the biggest leap over the Marlies’ playoff run to date. He’s in control of his surroundings more than ever, rarely losing track of an opponent and identifying potential lanes to snuff out.

Even when facing the most demanding situations in hockey, Liljegren handles them with ease.

Thrust into the middle of a two-on-one, Liljegren does not over-commit to one side in particular, instead gradually easing the shooter towards the perimeter before quickly closing the gap to force the shot. Liljegren does not dive to break up the pass, therefore taking himself out of the play. And he does not immediately attack the shooter, leaving the second Monster forechecker completely unchecked. Rather, he makes a small adjustment to his positioning, based on the sequence around him, which ultimately confines the puck handler to a low-percentage outcome.

What holds Liljegren back from a higher grade, however, is a relative lack of offence.

He’s not forcing as many inexplicable shots from the point as he used to, which is an otherwise encouraging sign, but you’d still like to see a prospect with tools such as his make more of an impact at the other end of the ice. Ten shots through seven games is fine. Although, there’s a lingering sense that he could have more.

Liljegren indeed has another gear to reach offensively. And in the grand scheme of his overall improvement, frankly, that is perfectly fine.

dark. Next. Young Marlies Mid-Terms: Pierre Engvall

Thanks for reading!

All footage & gifs courtesy of AHLtv