Right-handed defenseman Timothy Liljegren has been recalled from the Toronto Marlies, the club announced on Tuesday morning.
This is how the banged-up #leafs blue-line will start tonight:
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 14, 2020
While we’ve seen Liljegren come up before as an extra body, there is a possibility he enters the lineup for his NHL debut this week in wake of the injury to Morgan Rielly depending on how the pairings fare tonight. Liljegren has been a regular on the penalty kill in addition to playing major matchup minutes for the Marlies, and he would give the Leafs a pairing option next to Rasmus Sandin that Sheldon Keefe is familiar with, one that has shown natural chemistry together at the AHL level in the recent past. If Liljegren is going to play his strong side, though, that would require sitting someone on the right side, namely Cody Ceci. There is likely not an appetite to do that among the Leafs brass, although it would be an interesting evaluation opportunity with Ceci currently a pending UFA.
The other possibility is that we see Keefe give 11 forwards and seven defensemen a try at some point. It’s not uncommon for the 12th forward on the team to play 4-5 minutes under Keefe anyway, and this would give the Leafs more special teams options for the PK, in addition to figuring out some working D-pair combinations on the fly. It’s less than ideal for defensemen to rotate partners regularly throughout a game, however — that’s certainly the case for rookies who are just breaking the league — and Keefe has not been a huge fan of it in the past, only using it when injuries necessitated it with the Marlies. A 7D setup is not something we’ve seen tried with the Leafs since Randy Carlyle used Paul Ranger in the role back in 2014.
Many Marlies onlookers have cited Liljegren as the team’s best all-around defenseman this season, but the injuries to Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are down the left side, not the right, so it remains to be seen if and when he gets into the lineup. The encouraging part about Liljegren’s development this season is that he’s started to produce offensively while playing tough minutes at 5v5. His 24 points in 33 games rank him seventh in points per game among AHL blue liners with a minimum of 20 games played, with 13 of those coming at even strength.
There is a perception in the Toronto market that Liljegren has been a slow developer due to his multiple seasons in the AHL, but if he had traveled the traditional path of playing in either the CHL or staying in Sweden as a teenager and arrived in the AHL this year as a 20-year-old, the perception around his trajectory would likely be a lot different. That he’s putting up significant numbers as a 20-year-old defenseman in the AHL — and doing it logging big all-situations minutes, as opposed to a sheltered 5v5 + power-play role — is a significant step forward in his development and a testament to the development path the Leafs chose for him.
Both Sandin and Liljegren are credible power-play options with the Marlies, but Sandin has run PP1 when in the lineup. With Rielly out of the lineup, Keefe could mix either one — likely Sandin to start — onto the second unit to get them some more offensive touches.
With both Sandin and Liljegren, the Leafs have been careful not to rush either defenseman, choosing instead to load them up with big minutes against top competition in the AHL while teaching them the penalty-killing aspect of the game as well. The club is in a position now due to injuries where they may as well see where they’re at in their respective development, and there is an extra layer of comfort knowing Keefe’s pre-existing relationship with both players from the recent past with the Marlies.