CHICAGO — Moments after the Toronto Maple Leafs made him the 17th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft on Friday, Swedish defenceman Timothy Liljegren was already being tested on his new team’s illustrious history with some of his countrymen.
With a grin, Liljegren mentioned former Leafs captain Mats Sundin – “a very good player” – and sophomore sniper William Nylander, but that was as far as his knowledge went.
A quick prompt from the assembled media corps jogged one more Hall of Fame name (a blueliner too, no less) from Liljegren’s memory.
“Oh yeah, Borje Salming! I forgot about him,” Liljegren laughed of forgetting perhaps the best defenceman in franchise history. “He’s a pretty good player.”
At just 18, Liljegren can be forgiven for omitting a guy who last skated for the Leafs some 10 years before he was born. If it’s up to him, he’ll soon be writing his own history with the organization anyway.
A right-shot puck-moving defenceman, Liljegren said he looks at a player like Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson as the kind of defender he’d like to emulate.
“I like to skate with the puck, to be on the offensive blueline, shoot pucks and make points,” he said. “I like all the Swedish defencemen – Victor Hedman, Oliver-Ekman Larsson.”
But rather than compare himself to anyone else, Liljegren would settle for simply feeling like himself again. He had a disappointing 2016-17 season in the Swedish Hockey League, starting with a mono diagnosis that took him out of the game for two months before the year even began.
He returned his Rogle BK squad and didn’t perform well, posting one goal and five assists in his first 19 games, and saw his ice time decrease as the team struggled along with him.
Liljegren was loaned to Timra in the second-tier Allsvenskan for five games to try and get his confidence up (he tallied one assist). Rogle sent him to their minor-league team before the season was out, where he added five goals and two assists in 12 games. All told, Liljegren played with four clubs over the course of the season, including Sweden’s U-18 team.
“I played with different teams so it was pretty hard to find a balance,” he said. “It was a tough season, so I’m looking forward to the next one.”
The difficulties undoubtedly dropped Liljegren from where he was projected to be taken last fall (somewhere in the top five) to where he was selected on Friday. That worked out well for Maple Leafs assistant general manager and director of player personnel Mark Hunter and his staff. Hunter said Friday he would have been shocked to learn last summer that Liljegren would be available in the middle of the first round, but was happy to take advantage.
“We’ve really liked Timothy, we believe in his skill,” Hunter said. “He was up and down a bit this year but he can move pucks. He’s a new NHL kind of defenceman who can move up and down the ice at a high pace and make plays out of our own end very quickly.”
Hunter added he was very confident the mono was the only culprit holding Liljegren back last season.
“Those three months he wasn’t as good as he should be, but there’s a lot of good things he’s done at the U-18s. He was one of the best defencemen there,” Hunter said. “He’s just high-end skill. …He’s got all the tools you want as a hockey player and what he did the year before as a 17-year-old [tallying 22 points in 29 games with Rogle J-20] was off the charts.”
Knowing what he's capable of, and after everything he’s endured the last nine months, Liljegren wasn’t going to let a little slide down the draft board bother him either.
“I really didn’t care where I was, which pick I was going to be,” he said. “I really just wanted to go to a team that believes in me and likes me as a player. I had a couple meetings [with Toronto]. I had a good meeting with them at the [scouting] combine. Got a bit nervous up in the stands, but it feels good.”
While Hunter was hesitant in stating outright when he thought Liljegren would be ready for the NHL, the newest Leaf doesn’t plan to wait much longer for his NHL debut, proving even a down season hasn’t done much to curb his confidence.
“For sure I will battle for [a spot this fall], but I think I need one more year in Sweden to develop, especially after this season being so up and down,” he said. “One more year in Sweden, and then I want to play in the NHL.”
Hunter picked up in a hurry upon meeting Liljegren that speaking his mind about where he’s at – and where he wants to go – just comes naturally.
“He’s very honest about his game and I think that’s important,” Hunter said. “Some young men think they’re good and they’re bad. He’s very honest about where he has to go, and that’s important for a hockey player.”
Saying he has the ability to “lift fans out of their seats,” Hunter predicts Leafs’ fans will love watching Liljegren play down the road. The teen acknowledged the Leafs are a growing team that’s on its way up, and is “so happy to be part of Toronto” – even if means an update to the longer locks peeking out from under his new Maple Leafs hat.
“I know I have to cut my hair, because in Toronto you can’t have long hair,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I’m [just] so excited. Toronto is such a good city, with the fans and all that. It’s such a hockey town. So I’m really looking forward to being in Toronto.”