Going into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, there was a lot of debate about what the Tampa Bay Lightning were looking for. A defenseman seemed like the most likely option, but we also know that general manager Steve Yzerman and scouting director Al Murray are proponents of picking the top player on their board. If there had been a high-end forward ranked higher on their board, they likely would have gone that way.
When SBNation was going through it’s annual mock draft, the RawCharge staff debated who we should pick. Ultimately, we took Kailer Yamamoto because we believed in his high upside as an offensively skilled forward.
On defense, we were left looking at Nic Hague, Erik Brannstrom, and Cal Foote after Juuso Valimaki was taken a pick ahead of our selection. Timothy Liljegren was also not available as he had gone earlier in the mock draft at seventh to the Arizona Coyotes. When we looked around at different draft rankings, Foote was pretty consistently in the 18-25 range. We felt that picking at 14th overall, we were reaching a little bit to go with Foote even though he fit a lot of the criteria we were looking for in a defenseman.
In real life, the Lightning came to the podium at 14th overall with Foote, Brannstrom, Valimaki and Liljegren all available. A lot of fans felt sure that the Lightning would go for Liljegren with how much he had been hyped on social media. Instead, the Lightning went for Foote. Liljegren actually wouldn’t go for another three picks, with Brannstrom going to the Vegas Golden Knights and Valimaki going to the Calgary Flames before the Toronto Maple Leafs took Liljegren.
This article was sparked by a Toronto Maple Leafs fan interacting with Tom Hunter, the managing editor of Mile High Hockey and an occasional contributor here at RawCharge.
Me: damn Steve Yzerman is good at his job— Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie) September 16, 2017
Also me: pic.twitter.com/8U3qbriRBQ
For some reason that front office can't evaluate D. Took Foote over Liljegren in the draft this year too.— Gordon Kaine (@GTKaine) September 16, 2017
**guy hiding behind the wall— Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie) September 16, 2017
I think they made the right choice https://t.co/tzxRz6VmD0
While tweeter Gordon Kaine does have a fair point that this front office seems to have had some problems evaluating defensemen, I don’t think they were wrong with this pick. If they were, then Vegas and Calgary were certainly wrong with their picks too, going with other defensemen before Liljegren.
So how do you compare the two prospects against each other? How do you know if the Lightning made the right choice passing up on Liljegren?
The reality is, we won’t know for years to come.
But it also turns out it’s very hard to compare them to each other even right now. They are two very different defensemen and bring different things to the ice. Foote is a steady all-around defenseman that plays sound defense and will contribute offensively. Liljegren on the other hand is dynamic in the offensive end, but is unlikely to be more than average defensively and has more questions than answers on his defensive game.
Foote comes in at 6’4” and 212 pounds, and at 18 years old already has an NHL frame. It’s also possible he’s not done growing yet and could pick up another inch or two and another 10-15 pounds before he makes it to the NHL. In two seasons in the WHL, Foote has put up 14 goals and 93 points in 142 games.
Foote has a high hockey IQ and comes with “NHL pedigree,” the son of a two-time Stanley Cup and one-time Olympic gold medal winning defenseman Adam Foote. He is effective in making the first pass to break out of the zone. He’s also shown a solid slap shot on the power play and the ability to distribute the puck from the point. He’s unlikely to be a top power play guy in the NHL, but could potentially see some time on the second unit. With his defensive skills, he’ll also end up as a main stay on the penalty kill.
Liljegren, by contrast, measures at 6’0” and 192 pounds. In 41 games in the Swedish Super Elit junior league, he has 12 goals and 29 points. In 38 SHL games, he has 10 points which is impressive for a 17 year old. As a point of comparison, Victor Hedman had 21 points in 46 games in his last year in the SHL but was 8 months older than Liljegren was last season.
Liljegren has the offense to play in the NHL today, but he has a long way to go defensively. There are plenty of question marks there and he doesn’t have ideal size on defense either. He can certainly end up as a top power play defenseman and has the potential to rack up 40-50 points between his even strength and power play production in a few years with the potential to get into the 60+ point range.
When you look at an elite offensive defenseman like Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns, they are better than average defensively and Karlsson pushed up closer to the elite range the past couple of seasons. Liljegren needs to get to at least league average on defense to play to his full potential. The Lightning know about having a defenseman like that after taking Antony DeAngelo in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
Trying to compare Foote and Liljegren is a little like trying to compare Drew Doughty to Erik Karlsson. Karlsson is undoubtedly the best offensive defenseman in the league and puts up a large number of points every season. Doughty is considered one of, if not THE best, defenseman when it comes to playing defense. You’re talking similar player types when you’re comparing Foote and Liljegren.
Foote’s superior hockey IQ makes his floor as a prospect higher than Liljegren’s, but his limitations on offense means his ceiling isn’t as high either. Liljegren has a lot more boom-bust potential in his game. If his defense rounds into form, then he can be an elite defenseman, but if it doesn’t, he could be a perennial AHLer or back in Sweden before long.
For the Lightning, the presence of star Victor Hedman and the recent acquisition of Mikhail Sergachev may have also played in to the decision to go with the safer bet that also complemented what the team already had better. Right-handed defensemen are in short supply and what the Lightning ended up with is a defenseman that can grow up with Sergachev.
It’s not hard to imagine in three or four years a blueline that features Hedman anchoring the top pairing with another defenseman, and Sergachev and Foote making a formidable second pairing. Foote has the defensive prowess and break-out abilities to make the most of Sergachev’s offensive upside. When Hedman gets towards the end of his contract and his abilities start to decline, Sergachev and Foote will be entering their prime and can give the Lightning two very strong defensemen to build their blue line around for years to come.
The Lightning have gotten burned before by offensive defenseman that couldn’t play defense. Maybe they’ve learned their lesson. But maybe Foote is also just considered a better prospect by at least a few teams. Time will tell if the Lightning made the right decision, but at the moment I think that they did.