I remember at the start of last year when people were outlining their hopes and expectations for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Most weren’t expecting to be a playoff team; instead, they saw a work in progress that would need some time to get to where they are today.

They were fine with that. After all, this was a rebuild of patience, and even better, there was a huge reward for staying at the bottom of the charts that year. A slippery, smooth, creative player in Toronto’s position of weakness; a right-handed defenceman named Timothy Liljegren.

Fast forward nine months. The Leafs didn’t tank for him. Instead, he fell to them. On the clock and with many shocked that this was really going to happen, Mark Hunter stepped up to the podium, uttered “Timoth Linegren” into the microphone, and set a fanbase back into a frenzy.

The best season in a decade and they still might get a Big Four out of it.

Age 18 (Apr 30, 1999) Birthplace Kristianstad, Sweden
Pos Defence (RH) Drafted 2017 (Rd 1, Pick 17)
Vitals 6’0, 191 lbs Acquired Via Draft

To give you some buildup to where Liljegren was before this year…

  • At Age 14, Liljegren led all defenceman at Sweden’s highest U16 level in points. His point total was the 5th-highest at his age on record, dating back to 1985.
  • At Age 15, Liljegren finished in the top 35 in defensive points per game in Sweden’s top U18 league. Bringing the pool down to U16, he found himself in 3rd.
  • At Age 16, Liljegren finished 6th in defensive points per game in Sweden’s top Major-Junior league, and first in points-per-game among U17 defenceman. Liljegren’s production rate was also, at the time, 4th all-time for U17’s in the SuperElit league, trailing Daniel Wagstrom, Oliver Kylington, and… Erik Karlsson.
  • Also at Age 16, Liljegren drew into 19 SHL games, a rare feat for any player his age. He finished in the Top 50 in defensive points per game at any age and had the highest points-per-game for a U17 SHL defenceman in 32 years.
13  2012-13  Kristianstad/Osby J20  J20 Div.1 16 1 3 4 2
14  2013-14  Rögle BK U16  U16 Elit 27 22 19 41 24
15  2014-15  Rögle BK J18  J18 Elit 14 4 7 11 10.3 2 11
15  Rögle BK J18  J18 Allsvenskan 14 3 6 9 8.4 6 2
16  2015-16  Rögle BK J20  SuperElit 29 7 15 22 15.6 26 22
16  Rögle BK  SHL 19 1 4 5 12.5 4 -7
17  2016-17  Rögle BK J20  SuperElit 12 5 2 7 9.6 8 -7
17  Rögle BK  SHL 19 1 4 5 12.5 4 -3
17  Timrå IK  Allsvenskan 5 0 1 1 7.5 4 -2

That brings us to this year, which was seen as a regression on Liljegren’s part. What’s funny, though, is that the perception is only so because he stagnated; his Age 17 points per game (0.26) were still the 5th highest by a defenceman in SHL history, and the circumstances behind the result explain a lot about why things didn’t go even better.

For one, most famously, Liljegren developed a strong case of mononucleosis before the start of the season. This meant that he didn’t have a full summer to train and get his body up to speed. When you’re a 17-year-old playing primarily in a men’s league, that’s a big setback to have go against you.

It didn’t help that his team was, for lack of a better word, not very good. Rogle finished in the second-last position in the SHL standings, ending the season with a 16-33-2-1 record and a -43 goal differential.  They weren’t particularly great in their prior season, which is why Liljegren had a chance to play at 16 to begin with, but a further regression did him no favours. To put their lineup into context, the games played leader on Rogle’s blue line was Kevin Marshall, a defenceman who couldn’t crack 10 points on the Marlies in his mid-20s.

Needless to say, it was an uphill battle for him, and if he hadn’t had such an impressive prior season, people would have likely been more forgiving.

pGPSn pGPSs Exp. Success % Exp. P/82 Exp. Value
2 (31/31) 1 (T27/31) 69.3% (3/31) 41.8 (6/31) 29.0 (3/31)

The above numbers are products of the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), created by Canucks Army to project a prospect’s odds of becoming an NHL regular. For a run-down on what each of these stats mean, head back to the introduction.

So, the bad news is that there aren’t too many different players that have produced at Liljegren’s stagnated rate in the SHL at 17 and gone on to take a crack at the NHL afterwards. In fact, Liljegren is the most incomparably unique player in the pool.

The good news is that most of the NHL games pool belong to Tobias Enstrom, who has strung together an NHL career that isn’t elite but isn’t anything to scoff at.

The great news is that Liljegren did this while a few months younger while worrying about illness, and also outproduced Enstrom.

The best news? The reason that the sample is so small to begin with is because Liljegren’s performance in the SHL was, as mentioned before, historically good. It’s obscurity driven by success, not by failure.

Ultimately, comparing a down year of a teenagers career to two guys ever is probably not the best way to project a prospect’s NHL odds, so we may be best off leaving this specific projection be, but it’s a fun baseline to keep in mind nonetheless.

Qualitatively, Liljegren is just about the perfect defenceman to compliment Toronto’s play style. He’s a fantastic skater. He handles the puck with confidence and dexterity. He’s happy to distribute it, and he’s happy to shoot it. He breaks out of the defensive zone with ice in his veins. Oh, and he’s a right-handed shot, and we all know what those are worth.

The knock on Liljegren remains his defensive play, at least for now; you wonder how much of that is a physical immaturity thing that comes from being a child in hockey’s third-toughest men’s league, though. We’ll see if such deficiencies are still worth discussing once he’s 19 or 20.

The Upcoming Year

Liljegren’s immediate future still remains up for debate, and will likely be up for debate right until the wire. His potential destinations include a return to Rogle, an assignment to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL or Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, or perhaps even making the Maple Leafs full-time.

The latter two options are the least likely; the organization has no need to rush him and Major Junior would be a massive drop in opponent quality for the youngster. This leaves the SHL or AHL as his likely destinations, and there are pros and cons to both worlds. Sweden would give him familiarity and tougher competition, but he’d be playing on a mess of a team. The organization could give him a more robust, in-depth development plan if he stayed with the Marlies, but he’d also be fighting for minutes and possibly be pushing other prospects out of their own opportunities if he were to stick around.

It’ll be interesting to see which one they pick. For now, he remains at Leafs camp.

Long-Term Outlook

It still blows my mind that Liljegren fell to the Leafs on his draft night. “Pick for need” fans were dialled in on getting a right-handed defenceman, and the one that they wanted the most at the start of the year, through the luck of oversight and illness, fell from the top of the list to exactly where Toronto needed him to be.

We don’t know for sure what the youngster is going to be. He’s not seen as the sure thing he was a calendar year ago, and even then, calling a teenager a guarantee in any sense of the word is a little nuts in its own right. But this is a player who has potential to be not just good, not just useful to the team, but a bona fide star, one who will come into the league at just the right time for the team to make the most out of him.

He might not be as high-profile of a prospect as the “big three”, but he could, when all is said and done and the opportunity cost is considered, be just as important down the line. To call that exciting would be an understatement.

To see the other profiles in this year’s series, please reference the full list.

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