Comfort and confidence have Timothy Liljegren in an optimistic frame of mind as the defenceman looks ahead to the 2020-21 hockey season. Read MoreLiljegren shooting for top-six role on Leafs blue line, whenever that might be — Toronto Sun
Comfort and confidence have Timothy Liljegren in an optimistic frame of mind as the defenceman looks ahead to the 2020-21 hockey season.
The X factor, of course, is not knowing when he will take his next on-ice stride in the Maple Leafs organization.
“It’s going pretty good, just trying to stay in shape as much as I can,” Liljegren said on Saturday from his off-season home in Sweden. “But it’s weird. Usually there are different steps in the summer workout, but now you don’t really know when things are going to start up again.”
All the while, Liljegren, who said he has been on the ice “a couple of times” as Sweden didn’t impose a similar kind of restrictive lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve experienced in North America, has a fairly simple goal.
During a conference call last week with reporters, Leafs assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, who also serves as the Toronto Marlies general manager, said he would “be surprised” if Liljegren doesn’t play in top seven or eight defencemen with the Leafs next season.
Liljegren has a desire to go one better.
“For sure, my goal is to get into the top six,” Liljegren said. “I played three years in the AHL and I had 11 games (with the Leafs) this year, so I think the next step would be to try to crack the roster full-time.”
After making his NHL debut on Jan. 18 against the Chicago Blackhawks — and becoming the answer to a trivia question as he became the 1,000th player in Leafs franchise history — Liljegren participated in the 2020 AHL all-star classic before getting recalled by the Leafs, playing in eight games in February and two more in March.
In those 11 games with the Leafs, there were some bumps, which was to be expected. Liljegren was on the ice for eight goals against during five-on-five play and three for, while averaging 10 minutes 18 seconds of ice a game, and in possession, he had a mark of 43.7%.
But the man behind the Leafs bench, Sheldon Keefe, was instrumental in Liljegren’s growth with the Marlies. From Keefe’s guidance with the farm club, as well as that of the assistant coaches, came discipline in Liljegren’s game.
“He has taught me to play through structure, but still be creative within that structure,” Liljegren said. “I’ve learned when to calculate the risks of being creative and choosing the right time to do certain things.
“Just the fact he has seen me play for three years is good for him and me. He knows what I can develop, and I know what I can do when he is coaching.
“He helped me a lot with the transition to the NHL.”
Liljegren indicated he would be part of the Leafs’ group of Black Aces when, or if, the 2019-20 regular season or playoffs are resumed.
In the event there is no conclusion of 2019-20 and we don’t see NHL hockey again until the start of the 2020-21 season, whenever that might be, Liljegren would be just one of two right-shooting defencemen (as of today) in the Leafs mix, along with Justin Holl. Neither Tyson Barrie nor Cody Ceci, both righties, are expected to re-sign with Toronto in free agency.
Recently signed Mikko Lehtonen, who shoots left, said he would be comfortable on the right side.
Liljegren doesn’t necessarily see a lack of right-handed shots on the Leafs blue line as an advantage in his favour.
“I think every team wants a right-hand defenceman on the right side, but if there is a player who is better than you, you’re not going to play,” Liljegren said. “It matters a bit, but you still have to be better than the next guy.”
If Liljegren, who turned 21 on April 30, does become a Leafs regular in ’20-’21, he would join six other recent Toronto first-round picks in the lineup, including Morgan Rielly, Frederik Gauthier (assuming he still is with the Leafs), William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Rasmus Sandin.
“I gained confidence from playing at that stage, and the feeling that I can play at that level,” Liljegren said. “Gaining that experience is going to help me a lot in the future.”