TORONTO – It’s as if Timothy Liljegren knows Lou Lamoriello is watching and Mike Babcock is listening.
Toronto’s 2017 first-round draft pick — a skilled, right-shot defenceman, hey! — was saying and shaving all the right things Friday when he stepped on the ice for the first time with a Maple Leafs emblem on his chest.
The formerly mulleted 18-year-old arrived at the club’s development camp with fresh-trimmed locks, a goatee-free face, and the most perfect of role models.
Liljegren enjoys watching the smooth-skating countryman Erik Karlsson, but the defenceman he’s modelling himself after is the one Babcock rode to a Stanley Cup and a ridiculous string of playoff appearances back in his Detroit Red Wings days.
“Nicklas Lidstrom,” Liljegren says. “That’s the player I want to be.”
The youngest of three brothers, Liljegren began skating at age four and knew he wanted to play defence by the time he was 10. He didn’t watch much NHL as a lad in Kristianstad, but he’d read about Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin and, his favourite, Lidstrom on the Internet.
This has always been his dream, and it’s been made possible by a single mother.
Lina Liljegren packed up her brood and moved her life 90 minutes west, to Ängelholm, when the defence prodigy was just 14 years old, so her son could participate in a more advanced hockey program.
When the Leafs selected Timothy 17th overall in Chicago a couple weeks back, it nearly moved her to tears, the good kind.
Liljegren recently FaceTimed Mom from an ocean away.
“She’s still happy. She sacrificed herself. She moved with me to Ängelholm and made sure I had food on the table,” Liljegren says. “She’s been a big factor in why I’m here.”
Here is a week-long camp with 57 big-league hopefuls that began Thursday with name tags and introductions, medical exams and a group dinner. Friday night the prospects will attend the Blue Jays–Astros baseball game (a sport mostly foreign to Liljegren).
There will be guest speakers, media training sessions, social media tips, strength and conditioning sessions, and nutritional seminars. Scrimmages begin Saturday at MasterCard Centre, the franchise’s practice facility.
“The culture and what it means to be a Toronto Maple Leaf starts yesterday—how important that is, what the responsibility of that is. Whether you’re an invited player or a first-round draft pick, it doesn’t matter,” says Scott Pellerin, the Leafs’ director of player development, who runs the camp.
Toronto’s assistant coaches, Jim Hiller and D.J. Smith, and Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe work with the prospects on the ice. And skating coach Barb Underhill wasted no time giving Liljegren tips on his stride, which she filmed with a tablet.
“It’s so professional—more professional than I’m used to—and everyone is really nice, so it feels good,” says Liljegren.
The self-described offensive defenceman is viewed as a draft victory for the Leafs, who had a run of snatching up forwards in the first round and needed to bolster their pool of blue-liners.
Ranked in many top-10 lists, Liljegren tumbled to 17 and into the Leafs’ lap.
“When he fell that far, it was a no-brainer,” Leafs assistant GM and chief scout Mark Hunter said.
The kid believes his lengthy bout with mononucleosis last summer and the fact he came back too early and had a rough month of performance impacted his draft-night drop “a little bit.” He emphasizes how nice it feels to be healthy.
Already with Swedish pro league experience under his belt, Liljegren is quietly confident, too.
The only change in his life since being welcomed into Leafs Nation? More Twitter followers (7,573 last we checked).
Such an unreal feeling to be a part of the Toronto maple leafs oraganizarion and the best fans in the league!
— Timothy Liljegren (@Timmeliljegren) June 24, 2017
“I skate good. I like to have the puck in the offensive zone and make plays and score points,” Liljegren says, matter-of-factly.
His defensive game, with and without the puck, needs work, but Liljegren has already set a timeline for his real Maple Leafs debut.
“I think one more year to develop and I’ll try the NHL,” he says.