TORONTO — Erik Brannstrom called making the Ottawa Senators a dream come true.
Dmytro Timashov got emotional when he learned he’d be introduced as part of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening night.
For a prospect, seeing your name on the 23-man NHL roster 48 hours before the season opens is supposed to be an occasion for joy, a rush of accomplishment, and an encouragement for all the possibilities that lie ahead.
“It’s really cool. That’s what all the hockey players are playing for — they want to take a spot in the NHL,” said Toronto’ Rasmus Sandin, 19. “It feels really good right now.”
Unless you’re Timothy Liljegren.
Inside the Maple Leafs practice facility dressing room, Liljegren’s stall is located farthest from the core players, right by the door that leads to a padded mat that leads to the Marlies dressing room he came from. If Auston Matthews and John Tavares and Morgan Rielly — seated centre along the two banks of lockers — represent the sun in this orbit of talent, Liljegren is Pluto.
Not even he’s certain if he’s a planet, if he belongs. Yet.
The complexities of the NHL salary cap have brought us some bizarre situations (remember Arizona Coyotes legend Pavel Datsyuk?), but we can’t recall talking to a player less enthused about surviving the final cut than Liljegren was Monday.
Because, unlike his friend and fellow first-round pick Sandin, Liljegren understands he’s not here on merit and could be sent along the mat and back to the farm club as early as Tuesday.
Kyle Dubas is temporarily using Liljegren’s contract to help maximize the club’s long-term injury relief, and the GM didn’t hide that from the 20-year-old defenceman.
“He said I’ll be on the team today and we’ll take it day by day,” said Liljegren, who sat down for a face-to-face meeting with Dubas before his first practice with the big club. “I’m here now and just trying to learn as much as possible.”
Sandin (a 2018 pick) is a year younger than Liljegren (2017) and drafted 12 spots later. Yes, he has leapfrogged his fellow Swede on the Leafs’ depth chart. But it would be lazy and much too premature to label Liljegren a bust.
He’s 20. He plays a position where your mistakes get magnified. He’s coming off a season hampered by a high ankle sprain. And his greatest challenge may be confidence.
Rolling into camp buoyed by his notable step last winter in his second AHL campaign, Liljegren was upset with how he performed in the big arenas before the large crowds during his four pre-season outings, registering a single assist and finishing a minus-1.
“I didn’t think I found my way of playing hockey. I played a little bit stressed, so I wasn’t too happy about that,” Liljegren explained, downbeat but polite.
“There’s a lot of people watching you in the games, and when you make a mistake sometimes you stress yourself up too much. I think I put a little too much pressure on myself in the games instead of trying to relax.
“When you’re watching TV, it seems pretty easy, but once you’re out there, it’s pretty hard.”
The pace of NHL exhibition games, two notches up from the American League post-season, forced Liljegren into some poor decision-making with the puck, and the surprising aggression of the big-league forecheck hindered his ability to turn smooth breakouts when he raced to retrieve dump-ins.
“On the forecheck, you have to turn your head all the time. You gotta talk. And that’s not easy all the time when it goes fast. It’s a lot faster,” Liljegren says. “Making the easy play is not the easiest thing sometimes… You have to know where people are all the time.
“You’ve got to adapt, and I didn’t do a good job of that.”
Liljegren says the gaffes he committed during his tryout games would stay in his mind until the buzzer. He’d try to let it go as much as possible once he walked out of the rink, but not dragging your office issues home at night can be a challenge for the best of us.
“I think that’s something you get better at once you get older,” Liljegren reasons.
He sounds hopeful.
The best path in the development of Timothy Liljegren is not to take line rushes with Justin Holl and watch NHL games from the press box, of course, so we’d expect Dubas to return the kid to the Marlies as soon as possible.
Let him gain confidence so that when he makes his next NHL roster, it feels like a dream well-earned, not a book-keeping technicality.
“There’s a number of steps ’til the start of the season, and this is one of them,” said coach Mike Babcock.
“The truth in hockey today isn’t necessarily the truth tomorrow.”