Timothy Liljegren emerging as indispensable piece of Maple Leafs’ defence

Ilya Samsonov turned aside 27 shots, and Mitch Marner finished off with a beautiful overtime goal to help the Toronto Maple Leafs rally back to down the New York Rangers 3-2.

TORONTO – Some of us probably owe Timothy Liljegren an apology, don’t we?

There are the card-carrying members of Leaf Nation who wished an unproven Liljegren, instead of an unproven Sean Durzi, had been included in Toronto’s futures trade to Los Angeles in 2019 for Jake Muzzin.

There are those cynics who thought the defenceman had been handed extra rope on the basis that (a) he was a first-round pick, and they always get the benefit of the doubt; and (b) he was a right shot in a system desperate for blueliners comfortable playing that side.

And there are plenty of pundits (present company included) who have extolled the high ceiling of Liljegren’s close friend and teammate, comparable and countryman Rasmus Sandin, while discussing Liljegren as a half-step behind in the Hope Rankings.

(Sandin’s own 2022 contract pitch that he was worthy of something more substantial that the Liljegren deal only fueled that line of thinking.)

Quietly, steadily, in 2022-23 we are witnessing the rise of Liljegren.

All those small developmental steps are accumulating into a giant leap for the Lily Pad.

In truth, the soft-spoken Swede’s emergence began in the latter half of 2021-22, when savvy veteran and newcomer Mark Giordano pinpointed Liljegren as the under-the-radar Maple Leaf he had been most impressed by since being traded east. 

And when Liljegren, not Sandin, was trusted to participate in last spring’s critical playoff series versus Tampa.

Sure, Liljegren has long held hipster fan cache. Sporting the same beard as 90 per cent of guys who exclusively drink limited-edition double IPA microbrews helps. So do the underlying possession metrics.

But big, in-your-face statement games — like the one Liljegren enjoyed Wednesday, driving a 3-2 overtime victory at home over an engaged New York Rangers squad — were scarce.

Despite Pontus Hölmberg’s scoring on the first shot of the night, a wicked breakaway backhander, the Rangers dug in and responded with two highlight-worthy Filip Chytil goals to seize a 2-1 lead.

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With Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe encouraging randomness, shot volume and traffic to harass a dialed-in Igor Shesterkin, Liljegren made a smart and aggressive pinch with less than five minutes in regulation. 

The defenceman drove down the blind side of the O-zone and beat his check inside the slot, putting himself in position to whack home a rebound resulting from a William Nylander shot and a nifty John Tavares tip.

The game-tying scoring play was dirty and urgent. And it was one Liljegren himself admitted he likely wouldn’t have the confidence to convert a couple years ago.

“Felt good,” Liljegren said, smiling, post-win. “I think I feel a little more comfortable going down (to the opponent’s net) and stuff like that now. Especially that time. We’re down one goal and need a goal, so try to get some more offence.”

Observed Nylander: “He’s been very steady in the D-zone and obviously making great plays with the puck in the offensive zone, and jumping into areas like he did tonight, and getting a big one for us.”

Added Keefe: “Great read by him.”

So trusted is Liljegren that Keefe threw him right back out in 3-on-3 overtime, where he assisted on Mitch Marner’s slithering game-winner.

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And with his plus-2 night, Liljegren now leads all Maple Leafs with a plus-22 on the season. (The next-best Toronto defender in the category is Giordano, at plus-17.)

As injuries have mounted and the player has responded to increased responsibility, Keefe’s faith in Liljegren continues to swell.

Liljegren has averaged 16:31 a night through his career, but with 21:55 worth of work Wednesday, he eclipsed the 20-minute mark for the sixth time in his past seven outings and is getting some second-unit power-play looks.

(Memo to Keefe: The next step in the evolution should be trying Liljegren on PP1. There’s time to experiment, and things aren’t humming with Morgan Rielly up top.)

Keefe has been working with the 23-year-old since their Marlies days. 

The coach allowed a moment of reflection on Liljegren’s patient journey to becoming an NHL lineup fixture, noting how it wasn’t until the defenceman’s third AHL season when “you could really see it blossoming,” when his natural offence and not-so-natural defensive details both began to click.

“But it took time. Time for it to come, for sure. And he stuck with it,” Keefe said. “You don’t get in those positions oftentimes if you can’t defend.”

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On Wednesday, Nylander handed Liljegren the Maple Leafs’ player-of-the-game belt.

“I never got it before, so I didn’t really know what to say,” Liljegren said, smiling. “But, yeah, feels good.” 

So, what did the man of few words muster?

“Good comeback win.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Leafs prospect-slash-saviour Matthew Knies has been nominated for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the NCAA’s top player. 

Last season, Knies scored 15 and 33 points in 33 games. This season, the 20-year-old has 15 goals and 27 points through 26 games for the University of Minnesota Gophers.

• Chytil’s faceoff snipe was a thing of surprise and beauty.

“I gotta give it to him. Pretty nice play, catching everybody off guard like that. I mean, I haven’t seen that in a long time,” Nylander said.

Added Marner: “It’s a smart move. Obviously, it works.”

Reminiscent of Mario Lemieux pulling the same shenanigans.

• Most blocked shots, NHL forwards:

1. Auston Matthews – 63

2. Nick Bonino – 62

3. Anze Kopitar – 56

4. Garnet Hathaway – 54

5. Elias Pettersson – 50

• Justin Holl understands he may never be the fourth man in the rush whenever Morgan Rielly is his partner: “I’ve kinda just decided it’s my job to stay back now.”

• Ilya Samsonov is an incredible 14-0-1 at Scotiabank Arena. Best home goalie in the league.

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