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Maple Leafs' Liljegren Gets Extended Run at Expense of Holl's Fall

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren impressed head coach Sheldon Keefe enough to warrant consecutive games for the first time this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe wanted to "shock the system" when he shuffled his defense pairs and benched staple Justin Holl on the weekend.

Despite some lapses that resulted in four goals against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, Keefe has elected to run it back and go with the same group when they host the Vegas Golden Knights at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. 

"I just thought the D-core as a whole played a lot better," Keefe said of his decision. "I thought Timothy Liljegren, in particular, had a real strong game. For those reasons we want to keep it going and get another look at it."

Liljegren has been up with the main club since the regular season began, but he's only suited up in three games, all of which were a week apart. 

On Saturday, Liljegren looked comfortable skating alongside friend and fellow countryman Rasmus Sandin. If things go well, Liljegren, now in his fifth year of professional hockey, has a chance to become an everyday player. 

Keefe was particularly looking at Liljegren's confidence on the ice in his evaluation of Saturday's 5-4 win against Detroit. Specifically, Keefe assessed if Liljegren was effectively closing in coverage on the defensive side the game and if the Swede had confidence with the puck in the offensive zone.

"I thought he did a good job of that," Keefe said. "It is difficult when you are coming in and out of the lineup and sitting for long periods, we recognize that."

The Leafs dominated the Red Wings from a possession standpoint with nobody registering less than a 50 percent Corsi rating. But Liljegren's team-leading 82.14 percent rating in 15:04 of even-strength ice time stood out in particular.

As the Maple Leafs struggled to move the puck out of their own zone for much of the team's recent string of games, Liljegren observed. Learning from Sandin's "poise" on the ice, The 22-year-old has identified that it's ok to simplify the game and make the easy play.

"Down with the Marlies you always want to do nice plays or whatever," Liljegren said. "Here, it's more get the puck to the forwards and try to spend as much time as possible in the O-zone."

Tuesday's game will mark the first time Liljegren has suited up in back-to-back games with the Leafs since Mar. 3-5, 2020. In that situation, Liljegren saw a stretch of games to do injuries in the lineup. Now he's in as a performance-based decision.

When the Leafs changed up the defense before the game Saturday, Keefe stated that Justin Holl had not been playing to the level they had come to expect. It wasn't clear at the time if Holl's benching would last longer than a game, but now he'll sit for consecutive nights.

"Anytime you're not out there competing with the guys it's obviously frustrating," Holl said. "But all you can do is control what you can and have faith in your abilities."

Holl has taken the long road to become an everyday NHL player. Although drafted in the second round by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 NHL Draft, he didn't make his NHL debut until with the Maple Leafs on Jan. 31, 2018. He didn't get to become an everyday player with the big club until two seasons ago.

"That's the nature of the beast. That's how it works," Keefe said. "I think that's healthy for a team, even though a player doesn't enjoy it when they're going through it.

"It's healthy for our team and ultimately as we've seen in Holl's case, when he did get his opportunity he took it and ran with it. We expect more of the same when he does get back in.

Holl is under contract through the 2022-'23 season with a salary cap hit of $2 million. He admitted that he needs be better at killing plays in his own zone when speaking to the media on Monday.

"That has been my main strength and something I'll get back to," Holl said.

He also knows he has to be better at getting the puck to the forwards, something that was demonstrated in Chicago on Wednesday when teammate Auston Matthews exchanged words with the defenseman on the bench.

Liljegren is in the final year of his entry-level contract. There's a lot at stake for first-round pick from the first-round pick from the 2017 NHL Draft who is playing for his next deal. 

It's Timothy Liljegren's time and it's up to him to decide how long this run will be.

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