The 2017 first-rounder is still waiting to make the jump to full-time NHLer.
The T25U25 list is about youth and potential. It’s a battleground between optimistic prospect-lovers who’d project a sack of potatoes into the middle six and grey-souled rainclouds whose only joy is reminding everyone that the vast majority of players never have a real NHL impact. To be clear: I’m the second thing.
Timothy Liljegren is drifting from the dreams of the believers into the clutches of the skeptics. There are still plenty of things to point out in his favour; there’s also one big question. Is he even going to make the NHL regularly this season?
For this year, Timothy Liljegren is #6.
Cast your mind back to summer 2016. The world was a somewhat brighter place. The Leafs had just drafted Auston Matthews, Donald Trump hadn’t yet been elected, and I was but a fresh-faced blogger, excited to participate in the T25U25 for the first time.
If you were already looking ahead to the 2017 draft that summer—and given the Leafs had just finished last, you wouldn’t have been nuts to do so—you’d have seen the name of Timothy Liljegren. He was touted as a potential top three pick, a dazzling talent who’d made the Swedish Hockey League at only 16 years old. As it turned out, Liljegren’s draft year was marred by mononucleosis and some scouts described him as too much of a risk-taker, but his talent was undeniable. When he was available at 17th overall, I was overjoyed that the Leafs took him.
Liljegren’s development since then has been unusual. The word was that, like countless prospects before him, he’d need to work on his defence. He’s done that. Liljegren has become a rock-steady presence on the Toronto Marlies’ blueline, a fixture on a team that’s undergone a wave of departures in recent years. He’s a top penalty killer there, too, which is always a good sign of the coach’s trust.
Skill-wise, Liljegren’s an extremely smooth lateral skater; at his best, he can dance around opposing players in a way that makes them look silly. He’s a gifted passer, and is effective at masking his intentions with a fake before dishing the puck. And—at least in the AHL—he makes few mistakes. The city of Toronto loves T.J. Brodie and Justin Holl mostly for being RD who rarely make fans upset. Based on his work in the minors, Liljegren would seem destined for similar low-key popularity. Combine those defensive skills with his real playmaking talent and you can see why people like him.
Let’s take five to enjoy Timmy’s work on video. The clips here naturally skew offensive since it’s hard to make highlights of things not happening, but you can at least enjoy Liljegren sliding around the perimeter in the offensive zone like he owns it. My personal favourite is at 1:52, when he baits a forechecker into going up the boards and then just skates off to the slot. Later bruh.
For all that, though, there’s some question whether Liljegren has the chops to be a bona fide offensive defenceman in the NHL. Liljegren has scored a total of 11 goals in his 181-game AHL career (including playoffs.) He’s not likely to be a goal threat at the NHL level, and if it sounds harsh to say that right under a clip with a pretty one-timer and a nice snapshot, I have to point out that those were the only two goals Liljegren scored this year.
Because Liljegren is such a good passer, he’s still done solid work on the point of the Marlies’ power play. But in the modern NHL there just aren’t that many power play jobs to be had for defencemen. Virtually every team now uses a 4F1D powerplay setup. It’s one thing to hold down this job in the AHL, it’s another to go out and take an NHL PP spot from Morgan Rielly or even Rasmus Sandin.
The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler has noted repeatedly that Liljegren is not a great skater in every direction—he’s agile and slippery, but his forward/backward speed isn’t terrific. He’s also struggled with the pace of the NHL game on the rare occasions he’s gotten there. Here’s coach Sheldon Keefe describing Liljegren’s game on May 3, 2021 against the Montreal Canadiens:
“I thought he was OK. We wanted to give him that opportunity here today, and that opportunity will serve him well, but I think it showed it was maybe a little bit too much too soon in that sense for him, but this is why you put them in these situations, because they’ll be better for it down the line.”
That sounds firmly like a work-in-progress. One game is one game, of course, but Lily only got into two this year, and I’m quoting Keefe’s words because I think they have a wider application.
“Maybe a little bit too much too soon” seems consistent with how the organization sees Liljegren. It’s why Zach Bogosian was signed and played ahead of him, and why the Leafs apparently sought to do this same with Jani Hakanpaa this summer. The organization knows Lily can play a reliable, smart game in the AHL; he just hasn’t shown enough that they want to play him in the NHL regularly. If you think it’s unfair to measure Liljegren against a veteran like Bogosian: sooner or later, Liljegren has to take an NHLer’s job to be an NHLer. You don’t just level up in the minors until you get a spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs; you show up and make them play you because you’re better than the other guys.
But hey, Liljegren is 22. Plenty of time, right?
Liljegren is now entering his D+5 season. Most defencemen picked in the first round have played 40+ NHL games in a season by that point, according to this 2017 work by Namita Nandakumar (now an analyst for the Seattle Kraken.) The piece was written to illuminate the case of Philadelphia’s Sam Morin; he was 22 at the time, like Liljegren is now. Morin, whom linear time would lead us to believe is now 26, didn’t make the NHL in 2017. Or 2018. Or 2019. Or 2020. He did play 20 games this season in Philadelphia. Statistically, he was terrible, and for some of that the Flyers tried him at forward.
Of course, there are counter-examples of defencemen who bloomed late. Toronto’s own Justin Holl didn’t play in the NHL full-time until he was 27. But Holl is an outlier, and as a first-round pick with the Leafs, Liljegren has been in Toronto’s development system for a while now.
In the modern NHL, a capped-out wannabe contender like Toronto is hoping to capture special value from picks on cheap entry-level contracts. Yet Liljegren is entering the last year of his ELC, and it just doesn’t seem like he’s going to play much on a roster where Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin, and Travis Dermott all have better claims to spots, to say nothing of the crowd sniffing around the 7D job that includes Alex Biega, Carl Dahlstrom, and Brennan Menell. Given that Liljegren is still waiver-exempt for one more year, there’s a good chance he’ll be sent down to the AHL for another Marlies season. I’m sure he’ll work hard and do well there, as he’s done for a couple of years. I have to be honest: I am disappointed he’s not in the NHL. Not because he’s proven he belongs there, but because he hasn’t.
There were, and still are, good reasons to be patient with Liljegren. Development isn’t linear. The fact he’s only done well at the AHL level the last few years still means he did do well in the AHL. As Will Scouch points out, if he’d come through the CHL, he wouldn’t seem so familiar because he’d have joined the Marlies later.
The fact remains that in a year Liljegren is going to need waivers to go back to the A. It would be a letdown for him to be on them, whether claimed or not. The ideal scenario is that Liljegren plays so well this year that he irresistibly demands NHL ice, and all the concerns about him stagnating look silly.
Let’s hope for that.
Scouch: We all know what Liljegren kinda is, but I just want to jump in here and say that people really need to get a grip about a guy like Timmy. It feels like he’s been on the Marlies forever because, well, he has been a Marlie since he was 18 years old.
He just turned 22, and if he were a CHL pick, his rookie AHL season would’ve been the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. He’s still very young, and yes, while his point totals haven’t consistently increased, if I’ve learned anything in my years of data analysis with prospects, points aren’t everything with regards to a player’s impact on the game, and he’s steadily rounded out his game at both ends.
He has certainly come a long, long way from the offence-only 17 year old I was very confused about in 2017. The clock is certainly ticking now, but I’m still optimistic.
Katya: I don’t actually think everyone does know what Liljegren is. I see people confidently saying he’s ready for the NHL, and in a couple of years he’ll slot into a mid-pairing role right off the conveyer belt from the AHL to a depth NHL role, to the top four, like it’s a schedule. In other words, the same things said about Dermott until he landed as a third pair player his coach would love to replace with almost anyone else. Most people think that he, like Dermott, is offensively talented and bad at defence.
Dermott was bad at defending in the AHL, but Liljegren is truly excellent at it. He carries the puck well, sees the ice well, moves the puck as well as Dermott, and has a modest offensive game in the AHL, and so far, in the NHL, he has been absolutely terrible. Not just a little bit overwhelmed — terrible. He’s behind Sandin now, markedly. And as for his age, well, he was drafted 20 spots ahead of Jason Robertson, and he’s behind the other defenders taken later. And I’d have ranked him down with the third-rounders if he wasn’t as good in the AHL as he is. But I think he’s cracking his head on that famous ceiling right now.
Brigstew: Uh, yeah, what she said. I admit I’ve been unsure what to make of Liljegren, who looks so good in the AHL but pretty bad in limited NHL time. I don’t know what he can do, what brand of kale he can eat, or what the Leafs staff can do with him, to get him over that hump but it would sure be nice for them to figure that out if such a thing is possible.
Hardev: Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I’m not going to hold Liljegren back because of his short NHL stint. Sandin also stunk in his first NHL games, but the Leafs forced him into the lineup and he figured it out. If he needs some time to figure it out it’s in the Leafs best interests to give him that time so they know what they have in him. As Katya says, he’s excellent defensively in the AHL and there’s enough offense there that I don’t think you need to worry about him. If he’s of a similar calibre to Dermott, but isn’t getting that chance because he doesn’t have the same kind of flash (wouldn’t we all like to score in our first few games), I don’t think that’s exactly fair. And yes, Katya, I know life isn’t fair. Anyway, there’s an opening in the lineup this season, better than he’s ever had.