Despite growing pains, Marlies’ Liljegren values Calder Cup experience

HC at Noon talks goalie matchup in Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals, with Marlies' Garrett Sparks, out to prove something after getting pulled in Game 6, versus Stars' vet Mike McKenna, who's likely out of chances in the NHL.

TORONTO – The tangible signs of progress have been hard to identify for Timothy Liljegren during the Calder Cup Finals.

The Toronto Marlies offensive defenceman has just one assist despite regular duty on the power play. His minutes, for chunks of the series against the Texas Stars, have been restricted to that special team.

But then there’s the long view.

After being picked 17th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs last June, Liljegren was the second-youngest player in the AHL this season. Barring a last-second scratch in Game 7 on Thursday, Liljegren will compete in all 20 of the Marlies’ post-season contests this spring.

That’s valuable experience for the 19-year-old.

"I don’t think, from a development standpoint, we could script it any better in terms of what we’ve been able to provide him with opportunity this year," Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said. "Over the course of this season, we’ve seen a lot of growth in him. And the experience, I don’t think you can match that."

Still, to say this season hasn’t had its growing pains for Liljegren would be false.

He hasn’t scored a goal since Oct. 8, the Marlies’ second game of the season. For someone whose offensive game is his biggest strength, that 61-game drought is a source of frustration.

While Liljegren recorded 17 points in 44 games in the regular season, he has a scant four helpers in 19 playoff contests. He expects more.

"I still think I can produce more points in this league," he said. "That’s something that I have as a goal for next year.

"Playing the point on the power play, you want to score and make points. I haven’t really figured out how to score from that position yet in this league."

That lack of production shouldn’t be a cause for any concern considering his age, said Marlies captain Ben Smith.

Because he was drafted from outside of the CHL – from Rogle in Sweden – the Leafs had the option of using Liljegren with the Marlies this season. The St. Louis Blues did the same thing with their first-round pick, Russian Klim Kostin. Liljegren turned 19 on April 30 and is five days older.

"He’s been growing a lot as the season’s gone on, gaining confidence, really figuring out this North American game," Smith said.

"He’s 19 years old. It’s not easy to do that coming over here from the big rink playing against grown men. He’s developed."

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Offensive production aside, Liljegren believes he’s made strides this season, especially in the defensive end where he uses his stick skills and skating to his advantage.

He knows there’s work to be done. At six foot and 193 pounds, Liljegren still has some filling out to do. After he was affected by mononucleosis early in what was his draft season, Liljegren believes he has a big off-season ahead to ensure he can match up physically with veteran pros.

"The first couple months when I got back from the mono, it was hard," he said. "I think I came back a little too early. But after a while, by the end of the season, I felt pretty good. I had a pretty intense summer as well with the draft and training camp and development camp.

"Hopefully, this year I can get a full summer with workouts and get some muscle on my body."

Liljegren admits it’s been challenging to receive spotty amounts of ice time during the championship series, but he’s doing his best to stay engaged and be ready when called upon.

Keefe said getting any opportunity at this stage of his young career is nothing but a positive one for Liljegren. That’s something general manager Kyle Dubas stressed at the onset of this series, too.

"Most players this age have been long done. They’re not eligible to even come close to playing at this stage of the year," Dubas said before the series opener. "It’s a great experience for him playing here. It’s very gratifying to see that development."

Regardless of how big his role is in Game 7, Liljegren wants to help his team claim the Calder Cup in the winner-take-all game.

For the team’s youngest player, it would be a nice end to what’s been a rewarding season – but also a long one.

"It’s tough playing at this time of year. You play a lot of games. The body gets tired. It’s a challenge mentally to prepare for every game," he said. "At the same, these games are the most fun games to play."

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