How Timothy Liljegren is trying to earn another shot with the Maple Leafs

TORONTO — The Timothy Liljegren we got used to seeing in the AHL most of last season, wasn’t the one we saw during his first taste of NHL action.

With just a single assist in limited minutes across 11 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 21-year-old’s play was, largely, forgettable.

After failing to make the big club out of training camp last month, the Toronto Marlies defenceman is working to rediscover the form that saw him put up 30 points in 40 AHL games last year, earn an all-star nod and had fans and experts clamouring for his call-up in the first place. And, maybe, get another crack at the NHL.

“Yeah, I think just experience,” replied the 2017 first-round pick Saturday when asked why he struggled to find his footing in the NHL.

“I feel like I’ve been (with the Marlies) for a long time and I know the AHL now, it makes it a little bit easier. But, yeah, I think I was kind of nervous last year when I came up and I think I played solid, but not as good as I’ve been down here. So (I’m) just trying to continue to play good here and, hopefully, I’ll be able to translate my game from here.”

The results at the AHL level have been promising so far.

Liljegren has five assists and 14 shots in five games for the Marlies and is tied for the team lead in points.

“We’re really happy with how he’s doing so far. He has created a lot for us in his first couple of games and also has been strong and consistent offensively,” coach Greg Moore said last week.

Liljegren’s presence among the Marlies’ early points leaders bodes well for the six-foot, 198-pound Swede.

Highly touted as a skilled, right-handed D-man coming out of the 2017 draft, Liljegren seemed to put it all together in the AHL last season. He was finally racking up points, after middling results as an underager in the two campaigns prior, and rounding out his game by showing he could be trusted in all areas of the ice.

But the offence dried up in the NHL and his play cratered overall.

Per Evolving-Hockey, Liljegren had a team-worst 43.35 Corsi for percentage and 35.58 expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5, the fewest individual shots on goal per 60 minutes (1.06 iSF), third-lowest points per 60 (0.53) and sixth-highest giveaways per 60 (3.18) in sheltered, but meagre minutes (10:18 ATOI) with the Leafs.

Back with the Marlies, he’s showing renewed confidence.

Liljegren has made opponents look silly with dekes to open up passing and shooting lanes, as evidenced by his toe-drag against the Moose on Friday and his look to Joey Anderson in the slot Tuesday, also against Manitoba.

“(I want to) continue to grow my offence. I think, especially last year when I played with the Leafs, I don’t think I created a lot of offence, so that’s what I’m focusing on and what I’ve been focusing on with the Marlies,” said Liljegren, who geared his off-season around building up his strength and conditioning.

Liljegren’s also been breaking out of the Marlies’ zone effectively and jumping into the play to create opportunities off the rush.

The split-second, cost-benefit analysis involved in taking those chances is another aspect of his game that’s been a personal point of emphasis and one he’s been working on with Moore.

“I just try to guide (players) sometimes toward answers, if what they give just needs a little nudge,” said Moore of their discussions of different offensive and defensive scenarios.

“But, ultimately, within that process, Timothy is a really smart player and he comes to his own conclusions and works through that, which is a great sign for an elite athlete for his future and what he can become once he continues to build that process out and get strong with it.”

Because, sometimes, in the narrow field of view under the microscope in Toronto, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Liljegren is still relatively early on in his development. He won’t turn 22 until the end of April and has another year after this remaining on his entry-level contract.

“Any time there’s a guy like that, that’s had some time (in the NHL), back to the American League, really the message for any player in that situation, is to continue to build consistency within what they’re doing, especially defensively and in different situations, and then to continue to push the envelope and develop offensively, and not lose puck-touches and continue to gain another level in that area so that the confidence continues to get higher and higher,” said Moore of what the Leafs are hoping to see from Liljegren in the AHL.

“So that when he gets back, he has an opportunity, hopefully, (and) he’s gotten specific reps to put himself in a better spot.”

While Toronto’s depth-bolstering moves to the blue line in the off-season present roadblocks, Liljegren continues to trust the process with the intention of making his next appearance in The Show one to remember.

“(They want me to) just continue to grow as a player. I think I had really good development last year. I’m just trying to continue on the same path,” he said

“Obviously, the Leafs have a good D-corps right now and it’s a strange season, so I’m just trying to focus on being good here and hopefully get a chance.”