The Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 2017, and Michael Bunting may win it this season.
But even if Michael Bunting is the rookie of the year, he isn’t the Toronto Maple Leafs most important rookie.
That distinction belongs to Timothy Liljegren.
Timothy Liljegren, someone who most people seemed to assume was going to be a healthy scratch for the playoffs may turn out to be the Leafs secret weapon.
You see, Morgan Rielly is the Leafs “number-one” and Muzzin, Brodie and Giordano are all still borderline star players, even if they’ve all declined from their peaks, but it is Timothy Liljegren who might actually be their best defenseman.
At least, according to the stats.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Secret Weapon
Drafted 17th overall in 2017, many people thought Liljegren was closing in on bust territory, but in reality he had become one of the best defensemen in the AHL, which made him one of the best players in the world not in the NHL. (stats naturalstattrick.com).
In his debut season in the NHL, he finished with five goals and 23 points in 67 games, almost all of which was 5v5 production. 213 NHL defenseman played at least 500 minutes of 5v5 hockey, and Timothy Liljegren scored the 17th most out of all them, on a per/minute basis.
Out of the 213 500 minute playing blue-liners, here is how Liljegren ranked:
Corsi-For %: 23rd
Shots-For %: 20th
It is true that he didn’t play top competition, but the stats of other players who also failed to play against top competition are not anywhere close to this.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, with Timothy Liljegren on the ice, were basically unstoppable this year. They scored 57% of the goals and were expected to score almost 60% of them.
Liljegren was the Leafs best defenseman, according to the results. They had the highest percentage of shot-attempts, shots, scoring chances, dangerous chances, goals, and expected goals when Liljegren was on the ice vs when anyone else was.
Ultimately, the Toronto Maple Leafs do not play him on their top pairing, and other players get more minutes. However, Liljegren did post excellent numbers when he was paired with Morgan Rielly, and few, if any, 3rd pairing defenseman around the league are matching these numbers.
It is a very big edge to be able to put a player who posts star-level number but isn’t considered a star. It gives a massive advantage to the Leafs that their 3rd pairing puts up the numbers of an elite top pairing.
The future of the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line is Timothy Liljegren, who will be an elite, possibly Norris winning superstar one day in the not-too-distant future. For now he’s their secret weapon.