As backward as it may sound, the worst purpose that an event like a pre-season Rookie Tournament may serve is it’s ability to let observers form opinions. While it’s great to see your prospects in action, splitting 120-180 minutes of hockey between trying to learn the tendencies of a couple of dozen players doesn’t leave you with enough time to create an informed opinion, and more importantly, a player having an abnormally good or bad night will completely throw off the expectations of someone who is watching them for the first time.
MTL's 1-0 goal: Liljegren goes for the poke check on Ebbing and gets danced instead pic.twitter.com/rZu8AGVfLk
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 9, 2017
Leafs 2017 first round pick Timothy Liljegren saw himself become the victim of one of those swing nights on Friday. In a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens rookies, the 18-year old found himself on the ice for four against, with involvement in all of them. Thomas Ebbing’s opener saw Liljegren miss on an attempt to poke the puck away, a shot on goal by him turned into a big rebound and a counter-attack that culminated in William Bitten’s 2-2 equalizer, a pinch towards the slot gave way to an odd-man rush that put the Habs up 3-2, and the fourth came on a straight up giveaway by him behind the net.
MTL's 2-2 goal: Maybe more an involvement than a mistake; the rebound on Liljegren's SOG leads to a quick counter-attack pic.twitter.com/kX0aNHUcMa
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 9, 2017
That’s not to say he was completely to blame for these goals. In at least a couple of them, he has the right idea; it’s difficult to say that he shouldn’t have shot on that second goal, and Nicolas Mattinen’s lack of mobility is on prime display. The mentioned odd-man rush on the third goal was the result of Mason Marchment streaking in for a poke check rather than falling back to defencemen more than it was Liljegren’s attempt to step in for him in the first place.
But those things don’t always get noticed in the moment, and combined with the bookending goals of his night, it left a few people concerned for a player who can now likely be considered Toronto’s top prospects. Sheldon Keefe, who was his head coach for the night and based on recent reports, could be his coach throughout this season, wasn’t overly concerned, looking to focus on the positives in his game.
“I thought the real bright spot for him was that powerplay we had in the third period,” Keefe said. “It was a real opportunity for him to showcase what he can do with us. We saw some really special things there.”
Keefe also brought up a thought that I had throughout the game, and that’s the support that the youngster was getting from his teammates. Or rather, the lack of it. While we expect top-end talent to be able to carry weak linemates and partners, and they’re typically capable of doing just that, making a backwards jump in your surroundings eliminates some of your ability to make high-level instinctive plays and snap decisions while getting the support you needed.
Keefe’s cited example was the giveaway he makes on the fourth goal. Watching the closeup shows you a player making a tape-to-tape pass to his opponent, which is clearly less than ideal, but with two of his outlets being blocked by the net and with Ebbing heading towards Mason Marchment, his only option besides perhaps trying to ice the puck (in hindsight, likely preferable to a goal), is to try to get the puck over to Andrew Nielsen.
“That’s an easy one for him to be hard on himself,” Keefe began as he gave his take on the giveaway and goal. “But that’s another one, I just watched it back there, and we have no structure and he’s got no support. Nobody’s in the spots they’re supposed to be. If they were, he’d have more than the one option that he was trying to go to, and a guy like him would have found it. So, he can’t be hard on himself there.”
Another great example comes on one of Liljegren’s more positive plays, from the powerplay where he received his most praise. Liljegren makes an east-west pass through traffic that fools everyone in its accuracy, including Jeremy Bracco, who himself is a very good prospect but spent his last year playing with Major-Junior talent rather than men in the third best league in the world.
On the right, you’ll see an uncannily similar situation from the 2015/16 preseason, also involving the Montreal Canadiens, an SHL grad, and a good prospect not used to being fed on a whim by a great one. William Nylander makes the snap decision pass, while Josh Leivo stumbles to receive it. As the two spent more time playing with each other, they became a formidable duo with fantastic chemistry, but finding that chemistry and pace was a crucial step in making that happen. A similar situation was visibile in last year’s tournament, where Mitch Marner went scoreless in two games but earned praise for how he carried the puck and his defensive responsibility; little things that he was able to control as an individual.
Liljegren with the casual backhand saucer pass in the D-zone to help with the zone exit (these types of plays are subtle but so important). pic.twitter.com/yMXl5ULgql
— Ian Tulloch (@regressIan) September 8, 2017
That’s not to say that I’d give Liljgeren a pair of thumbs up for last night. It’s fair to say that, within the context of trying to help his team win, he had a rough game. You do still have to play within the context of your team, so “he didn’t have the right surroundings” can be used to explain mishaps, but not entirely excuse them.
But ultimately, it’s the first game of a 72-hour rookie tournament. A game like this shouldn’t have an impact on how you perceive his long-term potential, nor should you go in the opposite direction if he turns around and dominates on Sunday. It’ll be a long time before we really know what the team has in him, given his health struggles last season and his adjustment to small ice in either this season or the next one.
If nothing else, I’d spend the next few weeks enjoying the fact that there’s an 18-year-old defenceman buzzing around, trying to be the most involved player on the ice despite also being among the youngest. Sometimes it’ll be for better, sometimes for worse, sometimes it’ll lead to good games, sometimes to bad. But it’ll at least be plenty entertaining while we slowly figure out what exactly the Leafs are dealing with here.---
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