The Toronto Maple Leafs took a major step towards being a top team again next season when they signed Timothy Liljegren to a two-year contract with a $1.4 million dollar cap hit.
Liljegren might one day be a star (more on that shortly) but he is already worth more than $1.4 million dollars, and therefore he is guaranteed to provide solid value for the Toronto Maple Leafs next year.
Even if he doesn’t take another step forward next season, Liljegren will help the Leafs just by filling out a roster spot on the cheap and making it so there is more money to spend elsewhere.
But that’s the very least he’ll do. Liljegren – who was once forecasted as a top three pick before Mono cost him his draft year – developed slowly and surely into the player we saw last year, first helping the Marlies win the Calder Cup, then becoming one of the best defensemen in the entire AHL.
With the Leafs in his rookie year, Liljegren put up elite on-ice stats. That doesn’t necessarily make him an elite player. The Leafs are a great team, and they generally carry the play. Liljegren plays with a lot of really top-notch forwards, but the Toronto Maple Leafs did their best (in terms of their share of the shots, puck possession, scoring chances and goals) when Liljegren was on the ice.
You don’t need a calculator to know this stuff is important. If a player’s team does the best when he’s on the ice, there is likely something to that. I don’t know why people are so resistant to the basic idea of counting things like shots, scoring chances and goal shares, but there you go.
Toronto Maple Leafs and Timothy Liljegren
At 5v5, Liljegren scored only slightly less than Morgan Rielly. With any kind of power-play time, he’d have been around 50 points over 82 games, which is extremely good for a defenceman.
Liljegren is smart and talented, but he likely isn’t ever going to be a team’s best offensive defensemen, which is what will likely hold him back from ever being one of the game’s very best.
Liljegren can move the puck, but hasn’t shown a propensity to join the rush. He can defend, but can’t force turnovers and retrieve pucks. But he was a rookie. If he did those things, we wouldn’t debate how good he is, it would be self-evident. If he could do those things, he’d likely already have been in the NHL, and he certainly would have played in the playoffs.
He isn’t going to learn to score 80 to 100 points like Makar or Josi, but he can learn to be better at joining the play after he starts it, and he can improve his ability to cause turnovers and get the puck back. If he adds those features to his game, he’ll be #1 star defenseman, not an 80 point one, but a very good one never the less.
But Liljegren doesn’t have to be Cale Makar to help the Leafs. He doesn’t even have to be Morgan Rielly. At their peaks, neither Jake Muzzin or T.J Brodie was ever as good as Rielly, but both were top-pairing, star defenseman.
Liljegren aspires to be that level of player, and I think he’s got a really solid chance, based on his numbers last year.
And you can’t rule out the possibility that there is an even higher level to his game. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s not completely impossible that one day he ascends to Norris-level heights. Roman Josi, Mark Giordano, PK Subban, Adam Fox, Brett Burns….not every winner is a top pick with pedigree whose win you could have predicted years in advance. I don’t see Liljegren ever being quite that good, but who knows?
It’s not likely – not even 1% likely – that this happens with Liljegren, but it’s not impossible. What is likely, basically guaranteed, is that he’s an above average top 4 defenseman right now. He put up top-pairing numbers last year, and if he repeats that this year, then he is, at worst, a very good #2 going forward.
Right now Liljegren’s floor is “Above Average Top Four NHL Defenseman” and he’ll likely start the year on the Leafs second pairing. His ceiling is “#1 Defenseman.” I fully expect him to be the Leafs best defenseman next season.