TORONTO — Timothy Liljegren needed time to get used to the hollering.
Every hockey coach has his little idiosyncrasies, his own way of communicating with the young men sitting on the bench he stands on.
But Liljegren did notice a difference between the Swedish coaches that had steered him to the point where he was deemed a steal as the 2017 17th-overall draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the ones in Canada tasked with carrying him from hot, right-shot prospect to bona fide NHL defenceman.
“Coaches here are not afraid to tell you if you’re doing something wrong. In Sweden, they’re more laid-back. Here, you can get yelled at during the game,” Liljegren explains during an interview with Sportsnet.
To survive last season’s shift to a different continent and a shrunken ice surface, his skin had to stiffen.
“It’s been getting thicker since I’ve got here, that’s for sure. Sometimes when I was younger, I didn’t like getting yelled at — especially when it’s in a different language. But after a while you get used to it. You learn they’re not saying it to make you feel bad; it’s just their focus on the game is the same as yours is.
“I don’t mind it. You have to have a high ceiling to be good.”
Liljegren, a 19-year-old sophomore with the AHL Marlies, is good, getting better, yet the apex of his potential remains a serious question mark for an organization — and fan base — starved for defenders who can patrol the right side.
The Maple Leafs’ questionable blueline depth has been exposed down the stretch.
Toss in the fact that current NHL right-side defencemen Ron Hainsey and Igor Ozighanov are impending free agents and righty Nikita Zaitsev has been available for trade, and the intrigue hovering around the how good and how soon of Liljegren intensifies.
Lefty Travis Dermott lifted a Calder Cup with Liljegren last spring, when the then-first-year pro was impressing as the youngest defenceman in the AHL. Dermott has since made a successful and smooth transition to the bigs and sees no reason why the man Mike Babcock calls ‘Lily Pad’ can’t eventually make the same leap.
“Oh, for sure. I don’t think there’s any ceiling on him yet,” Dermott says. “He’s got the best mentality, really, for a kid his age and the position he’s in. He was always asking me questions last year, which is great to see — especially as a guy who’s hopeful to be my D partner or at least to be in the D corps here soon.”
Dermott took notice of how rapidly Liljegren, adjusting to a tighter playing surface, learned when to pick his spots to pinch or rush, and the teenager would ask Dermott to go over defensive situations with him.
“Open-minded is the best way to say it. Eager to learn,” Dermott says. “His skating is so good. He could keep up with the guys, and especially as a young guy, that’s tough, moving up against the faster forwards. So his skating from the big ice surface has translated well here.
“And his skill speaks for itself, what he’s able to do out there. Just a really good kid. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him. He’s one of those Euro guys everyone loves.”
GM Kyle Dubas was so high on Liljegren, the original plan was to call him up midwinter for an NHL taste, à la Dermott in 2018.
That idea was spoiled when Liljegren, who began the season beside Calle Rosen on the Marlies’ top pairing and working both special teams, suffered a high ankle sprain just in time to ruin his participation in the world junior championships.
Marlies bench boss Sheldon Keefe describes the injury as “a huge setback,” noting the ankle needed three more weeks to be game-ready than initially projected. A one-game conditioning stint to ECHL Newfoundland actually resulted in another tweak to the joint while skating with the Growlers.
Liljegren says the rehabilitation was gruelling but now believes his stride is back to 100 per cent. Watching Team Sweden, “my best buddies,” get eliminated from the couch, however, was painful.
“It was my age group too, so I knew pretty much everyone on the team. I grew up playing on national teams with those guys, and this would’ve been the last year playing with them,” Liljegren laments. “It’s a tough thing, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You just gotta accept it.
“It hasn’t been the season I was hoping for, but lately I’ve been playing really good and it’s fun to be back.”
When Liljegren returned healthy in February, Keefe paired him with countryman and fellow first-rounder Rasmus Sandin. Rosen and minor-league lifer Vincent LoVerde, 29, now draw the opponents’ toughest offensive lines.
“It was a lot too soon for him,” says Keefe, who believes the off-ice work Liljegren invested should have long-term dividends. “We think he’s in a really good place, and we’ve really liked his game since he’s been back.”
Naturally, there’s still plenty of space to grow. Instructions to shout.
Keefe wants to see Liljegren sharpen into a power-play threat, both shooting and distributing. His puck-carrying and breakouts can improve. Eleven points through 31 games is more than respectable, but there’s more to untap.
“Overall, he needs to play — and play a lot. And he needs to stay healthy. He needs that to get confidence and find some rhythm. We really like the progress he’s made defensively, defending against the rush especially. He kills a lot of plays early,” says Keefe, encouraging creativity.
“In the defensive zone, he’s done a nice job. For a guy with his skill set, we want to see him blossom offensively. The power play is a big part of that.”
Liljegren has received the message, loud and clear.
“[Keefe] can be hard on us, but at the same time he understands that you have to be creative, so he lets us be creative. That’s fun. But he can be hard on you, too. You have to push every day. It’s a good environment for young guys to be in,” Liljegren says.
“I have a pretty good shot, but I have to get it through traffic. Play more mature. Raise my lowest level. Every part of my game has to get better if you want to play in the NHL.”
Liljegren and Sandin have struck up quick chemistry over recent weeks and shout Swedish at each other about a third of the time they’re on the ice, predominantly in the D-zone, using English the rest of the time so as to not lose the forwards in translation.
“We have a lot of fun out there when we play,” Sandin says. “He reads me, and I read him pretty well.”
To escape from the pro grind, Liljegren, like scores of kids his age, turns to Fortnite and a headset. Marlies morning practice concludes around the same time as his brother’s workday in Sweden, so the video game wirelessly connects the player to home, to family.
“We get to play three hours every day, so it’s fun to chat with him,” Liljegren says.
“Me,” Liljegren snaps, without a beat.
A smile. A confidence this coach would love.
Liljegren downplays the trade interest his skills have attracted from opposing franchises, although he is encouraged by the knowledge that Dubas ruled both he and Sandin off-limits, steering the L.A. Kings, for instance, instead toward prospects Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi in the Jake Muzzin deal.
“It’s nice they have trust in me to be a good player for the Leafs. It’s good to hear,” says Liljegren, whose focus remains on his own improvement, on filtering all those loud Coca-Cola Coliseum critiques into Scotiabank Arena cheers.
“My goal is to play for the Leafs as soon as possible,” he says, “but I don’t want to rush it.
“I think when I’m playing for the Leafs, I want to be there to stay, not up and down.”