There has been a lot of online discourse surrounding Maple Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren as of late.
Some consider him to be a top-four defenseman already after posting strong underlying numbers all season, with his recent promotion to the team’s top pair inspiring confidence in his ability to win tough minutes as a 22-year-old in his first full NHL season.
Others view him as a mistake-prone depth defenseman who could be more valuable as a potential trade piece, one that could help net an impactful, veteran winger to complement John Tavares and William Nylander.
With all of this conversation and debate surrounding Liljegren right now, I decided to take a deeper look into his play this season. Below, I’ll share my thoughts on his strengths this season, his areas for improvement, and my overall opinion of his potential as an NHL defenseman.
Timothy Liljegren’s Strengths
There have been plenty of positive signs for Liljegren to this point in the season, just as the on-ice numbers and other fancy stats would suggest.
For one, Liljegren has been terrific at disrupting breakout attempts, using his skating ability to step up on opposing forwards and break up possessions. We see this from him in all three zones, but particularly in the offensive end. This is a subtle detail, one that adds up to a lot more puck possession over time:
I’ve also appreciated the impact he’s made in transition. Offensively, Liljegren points his forwards in the right direction with accurate breakout passes. He’s also unafraid to activate up the ice, making himself an option off the rush:
He has yet to score off a rush chance like this this season, but if he keeps generating opportunities that result in scoring chances, it will come. Even if he doesn’t score on the initial attempt, these types of plays result in sustained offensive-zone possession. As we know, the more time a team spends in the offensive zone, the more likely it is to generate offense.
Defensively, Liljegren is a pretty solid rush defender. He’s been really good at “attaching his check,” mirroring the movements of his assignment so that they can’t get in behind him:
His rush defense is an area of his game I’ve come to appreciate over the past couple of seasons with the Marlies, and it’s nice to see that he’s remained reliable in that department at the NHL level. He occasionally gets himself in trouble when he’s caught a little too deep, but overall, I’d say he’s been able to play tight to his check and snuff out rush chances more often than not.
Finally, I’ve liked Liljegren’s offensive-zone play as a whole. While not overly flashy, he’s a pretty good distributor in the offensive third. Liljegren simply keeps the play going, and while that’s not going to bring anybody out of their seat, I’d much prefer him do that as opposed to blasting a bunch of low-danger shots into shin pads or wide of the net.
When he does have a good opportunity to shoot, Lilljegren won’t hesitate to put a low, hard shot on the net for a rebound. He ranks second among Leafs defensemen in MoneyPuck.com’s “net misses % above expected” metric, missing the net 4% less than expected based on shot location.
Love the hustle from Bunting and Matthews to free up the puck. Allows Liljegren to get the shot off and Marner to finish it off pic.twitter.com/wYjySg5S6N
— Rink Rat Report (@RinkRatReport) February 8, 2022
Liljegren is second among Leafs blue liners in 5v5 Points/60 right now just behind Morgan Rielly, which is evidence that what he’s doing in the offensive zone is leading to goals. There are a lot of subtle details in his game that really add up when it comes to creating offense and playing with possession.
The Negatives of Timothy Liljegren’s game
While there have been many positives in Liljegren’s game thus far, there are times where he can be a little overzealous in defensive zone coverage, stepping up when he shouldn’t, leaving his man open, or letting opposing forwards in behind him.
Here’s a recent example of a play where he shouldn’t have been so aggressive and got burned as a result:
This isn’t just on Liljegren — there is some confusion between Marner and Matthews that results in Nyquist skating down the funnel — but ideally, Liljegren would’ve stayed with Bjorkstrand and trusted Marner to make a play on Nyquist. Liljegren has been involved in this kind of defensive-zone confusion occasionally this season, which is something he’ll need to limit in his game going forward.
The other major area of improvement that Liljegren must focus on is boxing out in front of his net. He tends to lose some costly net-front battles, which is an issue that is often exposed against heavier players.
Here he is getting beat by Canucks forward J.T Miller, who weighs nearly 220 pounds and is known for playing a hard style of game at the front of the net:
When evaluating this specific part of his game, it is important to keep in mind that Liljegren is still only 22, and he’s missed significant time in his young career due to injuries in addition to a well-documented bout with mononucleosis in his draft year. He’s likely a little behind where he could be from an overall strength standpoint.
We shouldn’t be shocked to see him lose pure strength battles against veteran players that are much older and stronger than he is at this stage of his career, and while it is a legitimate concern in his game right now, there is reason to believe that it’ll improve with time and experience.
These two concerns are generally what I’m seeing people who aren’t as happy with Liljegren’s game fixate on when evaluating his play this year. I do think that they are legitimate issues to be wary of. I’d prefer to see Liljegren in a sheltered role in the playoffs this year knowing those weaknesses above could be exposed further in postseason play, especially if the Leafs draw a heavier team that feasts on deflections and rebounds offensively.
Liljegren is going to have to work on these areas if he wants to solidify himself as a true top-four defender in the league.
Overall, in weighing both the positives and the negatives in his game, Liljegren has surpassed my expectations this season.
He leads the Leafs in xGF%, handily winning his minutes with consistency by that metric. While he started the year playing mostly on the bottom pairing with Rasmus Sandin or Travis Dermott, he’s been bumped up onto a pairing with Morgan Rielly as of late, and the duo has carried a 67% xGF%. Rielly’s only at 51% xGF% without Liljegren, so it’s probably not a case of Rielly completely carrying him so much as they’ve been a complement to one other so far.
Liljegren’s defensive-zone coverage issues are real and something he’ll need to continue to work on, but they’ve been exaggerated by his detractors (probably because he’s experienced a team-worst 88.6% oiSV%, which isn’t nearly all his fault).
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) March 12, 2022
I shared his Wins Above Replacement chart from JFreshHockey on Twitter yesterday, and while I understand that these results are certainly juiced by him playing relatively sheltered minutes to start the season, it’s still quite encouraging to see him post strong play-driving results.
It’s also worth noting that despite starting the season with a smaller role, Liljegren has played over 200 5v5 minutes total with one of Rielly or Jake Muzzin. There were also a few games where Liljegren and Sandin were the team’s second pairing with other defenders on the shelf due to injury.
This is all to say the “easy minutes” narrative isn’t a valid enough reason to totally discredit his underlying numbers.
Overall, I’m pretty high on Liljegren’s upside. While I’d be wary of continuing to hand him big minutes and tough assignments in the playoffs, I still think that he’s an effective NHL defenseman who has the potential to be a mainstay on the right side of Toronto’s top four for seasons to come.
Liljegren makes a lot of small, subtle plays that result in scoring chances and sustained possession, and while his mistakes are often more memorable than some of his teammates’, he’s certainly a positive-impact player.
I’d be opposed to moving Liljegren at the deadline unless the return is substantial enough to really move the needle. As a cost-controlled 22-year-old pending RFA, losing him would make the team’s blue line worse right now, and it would certainly put a dent in its future.