No doubt about it, the Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the youngest, most promising rosters in the NHL. But, just because the team boasts first round talent like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, doesn’t mean they’re immune to problems. In fact, because these players have arrived on the scene and established themselves as core players so early in their careers, it could end up costing the team down the road.
For a real life example, just look at the Edmonton Oilers and the contracts that they handed out under former general managers Steve Tambellini and Craig MacTavish. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Jordan Eberle were all gifted massive contracts before the team had even qualified for a playoff spot… just a few years later and two of those players aren’t even in the picture anymore while the Oilers continue to languish at the bottom of the NHL’s standings. Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan would be wise to take note of this as they move forward with their own plans for the Leafs’ young talent.
Further complicating matters for the Leafs is the looming expansion draft for a prospective franchise in Seattle. The NHL has already confirmed that, if Seattle were to be granted a franchise, they’d operate an expansion draft under the same rules that applied to the Vegas Golden Knights last summer. This means the Leafs are likely to lose one of their top young players, probably not Matthews, Marner or Nylander but last year’s first round selection Timothy Liljegren appears to be a prime target.
Thankfully, the NHL has granted the Leafs a bit of protection with regards to Liljegren both in terms of his contract and his expansion eligibility.
According to CapFriendly.com, Liljegren’s three year, entry level contract will now officially slide into a fourth year, meaning his current deal now runs through 2020-21, rather than 2019-20 as was previously the case. The reasoning is a loophole ruled that enables entry level deals to “slide” an additional year when a teenage player plays in any league other than the NHL. Because Liljegren has spent the entirety of his first season in North America with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, his three year, entry level deal at a rate of $925,000 per season slides an additional year, with a reduced cap hit of approximately $895,000 per season. His contract will be up in the summer of 2021 and because players on entry level contracts are exempt from the expansion draft, the Leafs won’t need to protect Liljegren from being poached by Seattle.
This may seem like a small victory for the Leafs right now, but there’s no way of telling how big this could be for the team down the road. There’s every indication that the teenaged Liljegren is on the path to being a star blue liner for the Leafs and there’s little doubt that a prospective expansion franchise would be interested in his services. Were it not for his entry-level contract slide, there’s a very good chance that Liljegren could have been Seattle’s own version of Golden Knights blue liner Shea Theodore.
Liljegren, selected 17th overall by the Leafs last summer, put up 17 points in 44 games with the Marlies this season, the most of any teenage defenseman in the AHL.
“I think his head for the game could play in the NHL for sure,” said Marlies teammate Travis Dermott. “He really understands the game and he understands that despite not being the biggest guy he’s learning ways to defend more efficiently.”
“I can’t see him staying out of that league for much longer.”
“It’s a very difficult challenge when you’re 18 years old to play in the American Hockey League,” Leafs GM Dubas said earlier this week when discussing Liljegren’s NHL future. “We could have put him in major junior and he’d probably look great, have a ton of points. The major thing I’ve been impressed with Timothy about has been his off-ice preparation. His commitment to reaching his potential. Goes about it in a quiet way. Doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. Just comes in very focused, concentrated and works extremely hard. I’m very excited about his prospects.”
That’s pretty high praise from both Dermott and Dubas, here’s hoping the kid can reach his potential and help complete the Stanley Cup puzzle in Toronto.