Filip Král has somewhat slid under the radar as a rising defensive prospect in the Maple Leafs’ system.

Much of the talk (rightly so) has centered around the promotion and long-term projection of Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin.

Joseph Duszak, meanwhile, racked up a ton of points last season, but his defensive game was definitely not up to snuff and management opted to part ways this past offseason. A similar description could apply to Mac Hollowell — albeit with less offensive upside — although the 24-year-old has stuck around with the organization for another season on a one-year, two-way contract.

Out of the Marlies‘ defensive crop, it’s the Leafs‘ 149th overall selection in the 2018 draft in Král who has emerged as next in line to make his NHL debut, and the opportunity has officially arrived this weekend in Los Angeles according to Sheldon Keefe.

It took four years of development spanning the WHL, his native Czechia, and parts of three seasons with the Marlies for Král to arrive here.  When he originally joined the backend of the Marlies for the shortened campaign in 2020-21, he looked like a deer in headlights initially. However, he vastly grew in confidence through just a short 10-game stint, even bagging a couple of goals in back-to-back games on the road in Belleville to end the season.

The following 2021-22 season was a tumultuous campaign for the Marlies, but Král finding a way to thrive and grow was one of the few clear bright spots of their year. It came despite a slow start to the campaign, one not helped by the lack of a consistent blue-line partner.

Greg Moore opted to switch him between four different pairings in the first 14 games and even shifted him over to his off-side on a couple of occasions. Working in his favour was a steady partnership established with Alex Biega, with whom he logged a ton of minutes and rarely looked overwhelmed.

The more the Czech defenseman was tested, it seemed like his confidence and development grew in tandem. Král registered just a pair of assists through his first 17 games last season, but in the proceeding 16 games, he came to life in a big way offensively with three goals and 12 assists. The 23-year-old finished the season with 21 points in 58 games, trailing behind only the significantly more experienced Duszak and Hollowell in defensive scoring on the Marlies.

Three of those 21 points came in a single period in a January 2022 victory over Springfield, setting a Marlies franchise record for most assists by a player in a single period. After the game, head coach Greg Moore praised Kral’s smarts offensively, noting that, “his overall game has been strong, and he has made some really good puck plays and reads in the offensive zone.”

12 of his points last season were primary markers, and 12 came at five-on-five play. Trusted on both sides of special teams, Král did not let his team down there, either, although Keefe will likely hold off on handing him penalty-killing responsibilities at the NHL level for the time being.

Through his two big-club camps and preseasons to date, Král quickly earned a reputation among the Leafs‘ coaching staff as a defenseman who does everything well. He won’t wow in any single aspect of the game, but he goes about his business quietly and efficiently. While he’s not a crasher and banger out there, he is able and willing to play an assertive enough physical game with his 6’2, 200-pound frame, which has helped him adapt to the North American style of play.

“I think Král is a guy who has had good camps for us and hasn’t had this opportunity. He is a good young player who has confidence with the puck. He moves it well. He has some good size to him and all of that. There are things we like about him.”

– Sheldon Keefe

As with many young defensemen learning the ropes, positioning in defensive coverage was perhaps his weakest attribute in need of improvement, but it’s an aspect he’s worked hard on with the Marlies, as seen in his three AHL games so far this season. A very coachable and adaptable player, Král has made huge strides in a short (71 games) AHL career to date that has not always been ideally tailored for optimal development between the pandemic’s impact on the schedule and the inconsistent performance of the Marlies.

Krá reminds me of Timothy Liljegren in the sense that he’s consistent and almost always in control as he executes zone exits and smart breakout plays. On a Leafs blue line that has struggled in those areas in recent losses, he has an opportunity now to show off his comfort in possession at the highest level. Král has also developed a keen offensive awareness at the pro level; do not expect to see booming shots from the blue line out of him, but he’s clever in his shot selection and effective at getting pucks through to the net.

Král was my sleeper candidate for a Marlies defenseman to make the jump at some point this season. With his skill set and temperament, I believe he will cope with the new challenge without much of a pronounced adjustment period. The word “calm” comes to the forefront whenever you watch him play, and I think Sheldon Keefe is right to reward the player and assume the big stage on Saturday night will not be too overwhelming for him.