Why Timothy Liljegren survived final Maple Leafs roster cuts

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Good Show to discuss his biggest surprises from the Maple Leafs opening night roster, including Timothy Liljegren making the team, salary cap related or not, and Nic Petan put on waivers.

TORONTO — When the final cuts came down at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, there were three young Swedes still standing who spent last season in the American Hockey League with the Marlies.

One of them ⁠— Timothy Liljegren ⁠— seemed to get a different message than the other two.

"Just I’m supposed to take it day by day," Liljegren said Monday, when asked what he’d been told. "Just try to learn as much as possible and get experience from being up here."

The conversations Rasmus Sandin and Dmytro Timashov had with general manager Kyle Dubas seemed to be more concrete. And upbeat.

"He just asked me to come into the office and said ‘Congratulations and welcome aboard and keep working hard,"’ said Sandin. "I was up early this morning (arranging a U.S. visa) so I was a little tired. But that woke me up for sure."

"It was emotional," said Timashov. "He said that I made the team. He knows how hard I’ve been working. He knows my way up from the Marlies. So yeah, I’m happy."

The difference can be attributed to the fact that Liljegren’s stay in the NHL is expected to be short-lived. While the other two made the opening night roster based on merit, he had an uneven showing in training camp.

"I think my first week in St. John’s was pretty good," said Liljegren. "Then I wasn’t really happy with how I played in the games. 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."

Even though the Leafs didn’t come right out and say it, his inclusion among the initial 23-man squad is likely due to the salary cap benefits it affords the team.

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They are going to walk a delicate dance with the NHL’s $81.5-million ceiling all year long — part of the price that comes with having Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Auston Matthews eating up $33.5 million in cap space alone.

Toronto will operate in the long-term injury provision for all 186 days of the regular season, which means it will be allowed to exceed the ceiling once the contracts of Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott are shifted over to LTI.

That’s both good and bad.

The LTI room doesn’t accrue like normal cap space as the season progresses and the amount the Leafs can be over will be reduced once Hyman (knee) and Dermott (shoulder) are ready to return in a month or so.

Eventually, they’ll be forced to carry a 20- or 21-man roster. The cuts made Monday are just a starting point for this group.
"The truth in hockey today isn’t necessarily the truth tomorrow," said head coach Mike Babcock. "We still have Dermy and Hyms (returning). I mean we’ve got lots of decisions here."

Unofficially, Liljegren beat out Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz and Kevin Gravel — Harpur and Schmaltz have already cleared waivers while Gravel hit the waiver wire on Monday afternoon — but it’s probably only a temporary solution.

Because the 20-year-old former first-round pick has a contract that includes performance bonuses, he carries a cap hit of $1.263-million. Keeping him put the Leafs less than $11,000 from the cap ceiling, according to numbers provided by capfriendly.com, which is significant because that’s the point where the extra LTI room will be measured from.

In other words, it was in Toronto’s best interest to get as close to the cap ceiling as possible entering the season. Since Liljegren can be sent directly to the AHL Marlies, he may not last more than a day with the Leafs.

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As for the camp battles themselves, Sandin had the most impressive showing. The 19-year-old won a spot on the third pairing alongside Martin Marincin against much older and more experienced competition.

"Played good," said Babcock. "You know, he played good over a time."

"It’s really cool," said Sandin, who will become the first teenaged defenceman to play for the Leafs since Morgan Rielly in 2013. "Obviously, it’s a dream come true, that’s what all the hockey players are playing for. They want to take a spot in the NHL. It feels really good right now, obviously, but it’s only the first step here, too.

"It’s a long way to go still."

Up front, Timashov and Nick Shore claimed the final two forward spots amid a crowded field. They were kept over Kenny Agostino and Nic Petan — both placed on waivers — and Egor Korshkov, who was sent directly to the AHL.

Timashov is a former fifth-round pick by the organization who has three years with the Marlies already under his belt. He came into this camp believing it was now or never for him to break through to the NHL.

"For me, I’m just thinking that I will make it. There is no (thought) that I’m not going to make it or what’s going to happen after that?" he said recently. "For me, I’m making the team."

Shore already has more than 200 games of NHL experience and spent last season with Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the KHL. The 27-year-old wasn’t sure where he stood entering the final days of camp, but was kept in part because of his versatility as both a right-shot centre and potential winger.

"There’s a lot of moving parts during camp and you kind of just focus on what you can do, and don’t worry about anything else," he said Saturday. "I think they just want me to play my game. A solid 200-foot game, good in the circle, kind of take care of your own end first and then look to grab possession the other way."

Additionally, Matt Read was signed to a one-year, AHL-only deal after having a strong showing in camp on a tryout.

Here is how the Leafs break down entering the season:

Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander

Kapanen-Tavares-Marner

Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Moore

Timashov-Gauthier-Spezza/Shore

Rielly-Ceci

Muzzin-Barrie

Sandin-Marincin

Holl-Liljegren

Andersen

Hutchinson

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