Rookie defencemen may provide an in-house answer to defensive improvements

Timothy Liljegren led the pack as Maple Leaf rookie camp kicked off Thursday afternoon

Rookies Timothy Liljegren and Andrew Nielsen represent a promising future for the Toronto Maple Leafs back end.

And it may not be long before fans at the Air Canada Centre see them in an NHL uniform.

The Leafs have done a good job on their recent draft picks according to NHL Central Scouting rankings over the last few seasons and this year; they selected the highly touted Swedish defenceman, Liljegren,15th overall.

He climbed as high as the top three on many draft prospect lists last summer, but a battle with mononucleosis forced him to miss the beginning of last season in Sweden and, to the Leafs’ advantage, caused him to fall several spots in the rankings.

Liljegren seems unphased by it all.

“Obviously there is some pressure on me as the first overall pick, but I try not to focus on that and just focus on my game and just play well,” said Liljegren, after the Leafs rookie camp skate at Ricoh Coliseum on Thursday. “I am just trying to do my best and we’ll see how it goes.”

On top of the tremendous skill and potential the Swede possesses, he also provides another significant trait — a right handed shot. Only Connor Carrick and Nikita Zaitsev shoot from the right-hand side and adding a third to even out the pairings would be a large help in the future.

Already a strong offensive team that has added veteran winger Patrick Marleau, the Leafs still need work keeping the puck out of their own net.

The Leafs allowed 242 goals last season, ranking them 23rd league-wide in this department and became the first team to concede that many goals in a season and still make the playoffs since 2009.

“We have some talent on the back-end here and these guys that have come over from Sweden and Europe are very talented players,” said Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “Liljegren has already been playing (with) Sweden internationally, and in early development camp and now he’s going to be in this event so, I’m sure they feel confident.”

Dermott brings big skills 

Travis Dermott is another defender, drafted 34th overall by the Leafs in 2015 and who represented Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2016. Although he stands at just six-feet tall, the Newmarket native is best known for his skating ability and his sound fundamental play.

Defencemen Travis Dermott and Eemeli Rasanen chat before the start of a drill at Ricoh Coliseum

Andrew Nielsen has become a more recognizable name within the Leafs prospect pool over the past few seasons and after being drafted in the third round by Toronto in 2015, he has trouble holding back his excitement for the upcoming season.

“Even though it’s pre-season, everyone is revved up and ready to go and everyone is kind of done with the gym right now and just want to get going,” said Neilsen, post-skate. “It’s exciting to be back in the rink whether it’s here or the ACC, we’re all just so excited.”