Maple Leafs' Timothy Liljegren has earned his NHL debut

Mike Stephens
NHL analyst

From an outside perspective, Timothy Liljegren is living the dream.

This is a kid with the world as his oyster, a 20-year-old currently being paid $27,849 each day to travel with the Toronto Maple Leafs, hang out with the Toronto Maple Leafs, attend practices held by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and watch Toronto Maple Leafs games from the comfort of a luxury (press) box.

They have snacks in there, you know. Good ones. I'm talkin' party mix, baby. What more could a fella want? 

Well, if that fella happens to be a professional hockey player, one would think he probably wants to play hockey — something which Liljegren hasn't really done too much of in recent weeks. 

Between Dec. 16 and present-day, Liljegren has been called up from and subsequently sent down to the Toronto Marlies a combined seven times. Seven. He even managed to do both in the same day on Dec. 30. Frankly, I didn't even know that was allowed.

Case in point: the Leafs have yo-yoed Liljegren more this season than, well, a yo-yo. And while there is some undoubted benefit to having an impressionable young prospect spend time around the NHL locker room management expects him to one day populate, at a certain point you need to see what you’ve got.

Liljegren has earned it. (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)

Why can’t that point be now?

Here's the deal: Morgan Rielly is off the table for the foreseeable future, set to miss the next two months with a fractured foot. That's his minimum recovery timeline, too. Maybe Rielly returns earlier than expected, maybe a bit later. Who knows — the human body is weird.

Add in the fact that Jake Muzzin broke his foot a mere three short weeks ago, and you’re looking at a team currently in the thick of a murky situation.

Both players’ injuries have laid waste to the Leafs as we know them, essentially gutting the roster of its two top defenders. In the meantime, Toronto’s blueline is being held together by a mix of papier-mâché and loose dryer lint nicknamed Martin Marincin and Cody Ceci. 

Look me in the eye and tell me that Liljegren would fare demonstrably worse than either player in the exact same role. You can't. And not just because you're reading this on a computer screen and we have also likely never met.

Liljegren is ready — perhaps not for regular duty, but at least for the opportunity to show why he might one day earn it. 

Alas, that opportunity will have to wait.  

Some people will point to Liljegren's lacklustre preseason as evidence for why his debut should be delayed. And make no mistake, it was a lacklustre preseason. But those same people will likely decline to mention that said preseason happened to take place a good five months ago.

Time has passed since then. A lot of it. And the thing about time, you see, is that change tends to occur the more it moves along.

Yes, Liljegren looked far from an NHL-calibre player throughout the four games of early-September action he took part in while facing mishmash of training camp rosters. Him surviving the Leafs' final round of cuts was a courtesy move, really — due entirely to salary cap mumbo-jumbo rather than actual on-ice performance.

But Liljegren took his eventual demotion with vigour. Assigned to the AHL mere hours before puck drop on the NHL season, Liljegren went back to the Marlies on Oct. 3 and proceeded to take the “next step” many had been waiting for.

This was a demonstrably improved player. His demeanour was that of someone with far more confidence; his game oozing with infinitely more poise. There was a steadiness to Liljegren that simply did not exist in years past. For the first time in his Leafs career, the 2017 first-round pick looked definitively above his opposition.

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What's more, Liljegren's offensive numbers have increased across the board in 2019-20. Significantly, too.

Prior to his promotion on Monday, Liljegren was leading the entire Marlies' D-corps in scoring with 24 points in 33 games. That's quite the impressive achievement in its own right, but even more so upon learning the second-highest scoring defender, Teemu Kivihalme, currently sits with 10.

Then there's the chemistry aspect. Beginning the season as partners once more, Liljegren and fellow Swede, Rasmus Sandin — who also happens to be a former first-round defender who was given real NHL minutes and looks pretty darn good in them as a result — continued their upward trajectory and formed the Marlies' undisputed top pair.

This wasn’t a classic case of one player carrying the other, either. Far from it. When Sandin departed for the World Junior Championship on Dec. 15, Liljegren stepped into the vacated role of No.1 defenceman and put up nine points in seven games, blossoming while his usual defence partner took his trip abroad. 

These are tangible signs of growth from an important organizational asset, the kind which should be celebrated. And not merely in a ceremonial, "you're the next guy up, we promise!” type of way. Liljegren is an emerging prospect at a position of need. His performance is sending a message, crying out to all who listen that he's ready for a new challenge. 

Give it to him.

With a full roster, Liljegren's spot outside the Leafs’ top-six is warranted. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. But that's not what this team is dealing with right now. In fact, Toronto’s circumstances are quite the opposite, with Sheldon Keefe rolling out a rag-tag group of defenders each night that might be good enough to handle the New Jersey Devils of the world and likely little else. 

If there was ever a time to test the mettle of one of your top prospects, the Leafs have reached it. Which begs the question: if not now, when?  

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