Nothing like a hot take to bridge the gap between the offseason and the regular season, right? As far as hot takes go this one I guess it’s pretty hot, as SportsNet and TSN are reporting the exact opposite of it.
Oh well, here it is: Timothy Liljegren is still going to open the season beside Morgan Rielly.
This is more about Mike Babcock’s options, and Tyson Barrie’s recent comments then it is about finding the most well-suited partner for the should-have-been Norris Trophy winner last season. With both taken into consideration, it’s got to be all about Liljegren so let’s start with options.
Kyle Dubas did a hell of a job reforming the Leafs D-core last season in an attempt to balance out the left-shot/right-shot defenders on the team. Of the players brought in, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci top the list of high-end talent (Barrie is leagues above Ceci, I know) new recruits.
Morgan Rielly, as we all know, is an offensive beast. His skating opens up so many opportunities for himself and his teammates, while his shoot and passing stack up the points for him, 72 points last season to be exact. He did all of this with Ron Hainsey on his line, too, which makes it even more impressive. Hainsey wasn’t an offensive factor, but his responsible play allowed Rielly to jump up in attack more freely.
Barrie is a right-shot version of Morgan Rielly. For this exact reason the duo wouldn’t work, despite the excitement they would create as a unit. Ceci is more of a reclamation project than he is a top-pairing option, despite his dollar value and right-shot status.
That leaves Jordan Schmaltz, Justin Holl, Joseph Duszak, and Timothy Liljegren as in-house options to pair with Rielly. Schmaltz and Holl are destined for a time-share on the bottom unit and Duszak is great but too green to make the team just yet. That leaves Liljegren, the former first-rounder, as the defacto option.
Liljegren developed some terrific chemistry with Rasmus Sandin last season, a player who makes an impact with offensive contribution from the back end. Liljegren has been forced to develop into more of a two-way, defense-first defenseman, although his specialty is really outletting the puck. Sandin benefitted from Liljegren’s first pass ability last season, and Rielly will too come October.
Barrie wants blueline reunion
In recent comments relayed by TSN’s Kristen Shilton, Tyson Barries thinks he’ll be reunited with World Cup partner Jake Muzzin; “I love playing with Muz. I played with him at World Championships…when we won. He’s a pleasure to play with, a very poised, smart guy. He’s got a lot of experience and he talks a lot.”
It’s always nice when you can see successful players reunite in a new scenario. Barrie and Muzzin makes a lot of sense from a player perspective, and Babcock knows how the duo will play together. Shilton also reported that preliminary skates have Muzzin and Barrie paired up already.
Rielly has been skating with Ceci in informal skates, but allow me to dig myself out of this hole if I may. Quite simply, Liljegren will win the position over Ceci as training camp goes on. The obvious partner for Rielly to start is Ceci, I’ll admit that but there is no history with the players like Muzzin and Barrie, so this pairing is up for debate still (in my opinion).
Liljegren will pass Ceci for the same reason the Leafs were able to trade Dion Phaneuf without retaining any salary – Mike Babcock will pick each situation and minute Ceci plays to maximize his value on the team this year.
I fully expect Cody Ceci to get every opportunity to play alongside Morgan Rielly this season and soak up the majority of minutes of training camp alongside the Leafs defensive leader. I also think Ceci winning this position would be the best-case scenario for the team this season, but that is unrealistic.
I’ve even gone on record saying that Cody Ceci is primed to be the Leafs most surprising player this year, but I think Ceci being surprisingly good would be an NHL-best bottom-pairing player who can play intelligently in limited situations.
Liljegren is one of the key parts to the future of the Leafs defensive core and is a homegrown talent. The time needs to be invested in the youth movement to prove the NHL pathway exists for prospects, and to provide some cap relief to a contractually uncertain team moving forward. Ceci may have the upper hand now, but Liljegren is my dark horse for Morgan Rielly’s partner come October.