Sheldon Keefe getting answers about Maple Leafs defence

MONTREAL — Coming into training camp, there didn’t look to be any roster spots available on the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line. But things changed when John Klingberg left midway through a Sept. 27 preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres with an upper-body injury.

Yet even if Klingberg’s injury is day to day and not that serious, it highlighted one of the concerns surrounding the Leafs: Their depth on the back end appeared questionable enough to begin with.

Even if Leafs GM Brad Treliving argued ahead of training camp his team’s defence is “underrated,” Klingberg’s absence still felt like a key Jenga piece being removed from an already shaky pile of wooden bricks.

Any injury within a presumed top six that’s felt set in stone for weeks means Conor Timmins — who played in only three games over the final two months of last season — taking a spot.

And so with the early injury to Klingberg, coach Sheldon Keefe left every other top four defenceman in Toronto and stacked his roster for Friday’s preseason tilt against the Montreal Canadiens with every realistic option for his third pair and, possibly, beyond. The message felt clear: If there’s time in the top four, or even a spot inside the top six, available, who wants it?

The Klingberg injury brought two players into focus in Friday’s 2-1 preseason win over the Canadiens: Timothy Liljegren and Timmins.

First, Liljegren. After steadily progressing over the past two seasons, the 2017 first-round pick began training camp skating on the presumed third pair with Mark Giordano. There was essentially one question Liljegren, 24, had to answer this season: If there’s an injury in the top four, is he ready for full-time minutes in that role?

“I’m looking to take another step,” Liljegren said assuredly.

In a conversation with The Athletic, Liljegren sounded less like a young player finding his way and more like a seasoned veteran as he used one word repeatedly: responsibility. He wants more of that responsibility on the penalty kill, specifically.

That he was able to make a positive difference through 3:06 of power-play time and 4:32 on the penalty kill against the Canadiens implies he’s capable of stepping into both in the regular season when it matters. The increased duty he’s craving may have finally arrived.

“I had some good stretches last year when I was in the top four, but then games when you lose your touch a little bit and get bumped down,” Liljegren said of staying in the top four this season should a job become available. “So I have to work on my consistency and raise my floor so my bad play is still always good, if that makes sense.”

It does.

Keefe told Liljegren he wants him to join the rush more. And against the Canadiens, Liljegren looked confident in doing so repeatedly.

“Just keep doing what he’s doing,” Keefe said when asked what Liljegren needs to do to take hold of a top four spot for good. “I think he’s been excellent.”

In a team-leading 24:16 TOI against the Canadiens, Liljegren was the most active and dominant Leafs defenceman in all three zones, making smart outlet passes at one end and creative plays at the other. His puck over glass penalty with less than two minutes remaining is the kind of blunder he’s trying to eradicate from his game, but those types of errors have become fewer and further between.

Liljegren feels like a natural replacement for Klingberg in the team’s top two pairs should injury strike the veteran defenceman again. Keefe singled out the likes of Morgan Rielly, Klingberg and Liljegren as active, offensively-inclined blueliners he wants spread out among his top six. Game by game, the big-picture concerns about Liljegren are dissipating.

“(Liljegren) is going to play a lot for us no matter how he slots in. We’re not too focused on putting a label on it,” Keefe said.

Then there’s Timmins, 25, who was right on Liljegren’s heels with 23:59 TOI against the Canadiens.

When the Leafs traded for Timmins early last season, the 2017 second-round pick and offence-first blueliner was seen as an intriguing long-term play with plenty of hours with the Leafs development staff ahead of him.

“I knew they were fond of me as a player and the fact that they were investing in me meant a lot to me and allowed me to really give back in terms of my work ethic,” Timmins said.

Timmins utilized the short distance between Toronto and his offseason home outside of St. Catherines, Ontario, to log heavy hours at the Leafs practice facility. Timmins wanted to add strength and his focus with Leafs skating development consultant Paul Matheson was his explosiveness.

If we’re going on the score sheet alone, those hours are starting to pay off. Smooth puck moving has never been in short supply in Timmins’ game, but he’s turned heads by logging six points through four games, still tops among Leafs through the preseason.

There remains the possibility, one which increases and diminishes by the day in the preseason, that Timmins won’t make the Leafs and will have to be waived. There’s still time for Treliving and the Leafs management to sort out the Leafs’ salary-cap picture. And with his preseason play, Timmins is becoming an increasingly integral part of those discussions. Is there a way Treliving can jam his $1.1 million AAV onto the roster? If not, Timmins, signed into 2025, could be claimed by another team or could clear through waivers and be sent to the Marlies for more development.

“I don’t focus on those things,” he said resolutely Friday.

If Timmins can balance his production with more consistent defensive work, he might not have to.

Because for as many heads-up plays in the offensive zone as Timmins made against the Canadiens, there were a few shaky moments in his own zone. And those will be the types of questions Timmins will have to answer throughout the remainder of training camp and possibly into the regular season: While the offence is there, could he be fully trusted defensively later in the season should a spot in the top six open?

After reviewing his games from last season, Timmins went into this summer focused on improving how quickly he can close opposition plays.

“That allows me to really transition the puck faster, catch forwards on the other team off guard and jump up in the rush,” Timmins said. “So I think in that regard, defence can lead to offence a lot of times and it’ll help my game both ways.”

Those improvements mean Keefe is getting some answers and learning more about just when and how Timmins can be used defensively. Timmins won’t be expected to log near the 4:20 of penalty kill time he had against the Canadiens throughout the season, sure. But that he impressed enough in a new situation suggests Keefe’s trust in Timmins may have grown from last season.

“He battled really hard tonight,” Keefe said of Timmins. “He took on some big minutes. He had to play a bunch, obviously in some tough spots and some spots that we haven’t used him in as much. And that’s what this time of the year is for. I thought he was really good tonight.”

Ultimately, seeing both Liljegren and Timmins take steps in their game through preseason is a good problem for Keefe to have. But it won’t make his decision on which blueliners will slot in where as the regular season approaches any easier.

(Photo of Gustav Lindström and Timothy Liljegren: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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