What John Klingberg’s move to LTIR means for Conor Timmins and the Maple Leafs

John Klingberg sat hunched in the corner of a smallish locker room in Stockholm, Sweden, on Nov. 18 with his gaze fixed past the reporters in front of him and toward nothing at all.

The Leafs defenceman had been out of the lineup since Nov. 11 with an undisclosed injury and could only make it through a few brief minutes of that day’s practice before leaving the ice on his own. “Very stiff, a little bit pain. Not a lot of motion,” was how he described those few minutes.

Klingberg told reporters he’d been dealing with that injury throughout his career, but that it “kind of hit a rock bottom here these last few weeks.”

Less than a week after that practice, rock bottom turned out to be much deeper. On Thursday the Leafs placed Klingberg on LTIR. That media availability ended up becoming his last for the foreseeable future. It’s still to be determined exactly how long Klingberg will be out of the lineup. However, the LTIR designation means he won’t be eligible to play until at least Dec. 12. In the coming days, Klingberg will continue to determine what his long-term outlook will be.

Through 14 games, Klingberg hardly had the start to his Leafs tenure he likely wanted when he signed a one-year, $4.15 million free-agent deal in the offseason. He did not score a single goal. Defending well consistently in his own zone was a challenge. Overall, Klingberg looked more like the defenceman who struggled to find his game in brief stops with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild last season and less like the All-Star who looked to have a shot at the Norris Trophy in 2018.

And now, with the LTIR designation it’s worth wondering: did the Leafs management understand the full extent of Klingberg’s injury and ink him to a hefty one-year deal anyway? Or was the nature of the injury unclear to them? Either way, the optics aren’t excellent.

According to CapFriendly, the Leafs currently have just over $3.3 million in cap space. But with one of GM Brad Treliving’s four high-profile offseason additions, Ryan Reaves, languishing in the press box of late, and another’s future this season unclear, the pressure on Treliving to use the new cap space wisely has increased.

Right now, the decisions look to be beneficial ones.

In the middle of an 11-game point streak with the Marlies, Alex Steeves was rewarded for his white-hot form and called up to the Leafs. This is the third season in a row that Steeves has earned an audition with the big club. With Steeves’ confidence undoubtedly at an all-time high after producing offence in a variety of ways, Sheldon Keefe will hope Steeves can translate some of that scoring, in addition to his energy, physicality and responsible defensive play, in fourth-line minutes. It will be on Steeves to make this audition last longer than the three games apiece he lasted the past two seasons with the Leafs.

The next likely move will likely see Conor Timmins activated off LTIR. The right-shot defenceman suffered a lower-body injury in a Sept. 29 preseason game and has been on LTIR since.

The Leafs could use the boost that Timmins’ puck-moving abilities and offensive inclinations can provide, especially after a strong preseason in which he tallied six points in three games. Keefe has essentially pegged Timmins as a like-for-like substitute for Klingberg, noting on Thursday that Timmins’ strengths are “similar to what Klingberg’s strengths are.”

“Timmins is a different look,” Keefe said of how the team’s blue line could change with the 25-year-old in the lineup. “But the other part of it is getting a right shot in there, which is important in terms of moving the puck and being more fluid offensively in all three zones.”

Rediscovering his preseason form should be at the top of Timmins’ to-do list. That preseason was partly a result of the longer-than-normal hours Timmins logged at the Leafs practice facility this summer. Timmins worked with Leafs skating development consultant Paul Matheson to add his explosiveness and he used the time off the ice during his injury to continue building strength.

“I was able to maintain a lot of what I did in the offseason,” he said confidently on Thursday. “(The injury) went by relatively quick in my mind.”

Conor Timmins hasn’t played for the Leafs since suffering an injury in preseason. (David Kirouac / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

During the preseason, Timmins looked different than the defenceman who would sometimes deal with moments of hesitation and questionable decision-making in 2022-23. Timmins admitted that at his best, he was making good reads and, perhaps most importantly, had a “good mental space.”

“I wasn’t trying to do too much,” Timmins said. “I was letting the game come to me.”

Getting that version of Timmins into the lineup could be a boon for a Leafs team that — outside of Morgan Rielly — has not generated a ton of offence from the back end.

With the injuries to fellow right-shot defencemen Klingberg and Timothy Liljegren, Timmins could have a decent amount of runway to prove his case for a top-six spot for the remainder of the season. He’s never been afraid of putting in the work with the team’s development staff. Could this be an opportunity for Timmins to show the impact of all that development work? That Keefe has immediately entrusted Timmins with a spot on the power play, albeit with limited other options, suggests that the coaching staff want him to make the most of the opportunity too. Simon Benoit will likely draw out of the lineup with Timmins in.

Timmins is a believer in the process. On Thursday, he insisted he was less interested in what the power-play time could mean for his game, and more interested in breaking the puck out well and defending well.

“I’ve put in a lot of good work since I arrived in Toronto. I’ve been really happy with how my game has developed,” Timmins said.

There’s always been an affability in his demeanour that’s allowed him to stay patient as he’s developed. Timmins looked comfortable throughout Thursday’s practice, shooting constant smiles and trading good-natured barbs at another member of the second power-play unit, Matthew Knies, for missing the net during a power play drill.

Staying healthy will be a priority for Timmins too. He was hampered by a serious knee injury and a concussion in the past. Over five professional seasons, he’s logged just 66 NHL games.

“With my history, it’s been tough. I haven’t been able to play as much as I want to. But I had a good base to build off of, so hopefully I’ll be able to hit the ground running,” Timmins said.

If Timmins can do just that and show improvements in his defensive awareness as a result of his development time, the Leafs defence could end up better.

If it doesn’t, the cap space the Leafs now have — depending of course on whether Klingberg requires surgery and how much time he misses — could change how management approaches the trade market. Being pushed up against the cap, Treliving might have had to move a less-than-desirable contract as well as some kind of sweetener package involving prospects or draft capital on that outgoing contract to add on the blue line. But now, at least in theory, the cost of a defenceman or two presumably still on Treliving’s shopping list might look different. Once Leafs management knows how much time Klingberg will miss, could this newfound cap space mean Treliving might not have to add as strong a prospect or as high a draft pick to any deal as he might have a few weeks ago?

Options are never a bad thing for a coach and a general manager to have. What becomes of those options remains to be seen.

When Klingberg was signed in the offseason, Treliving admitted the Leafs blue line remained a work in progress. It feels like progress could start moving steadily along soon enough.

(Photo of John Klingberg: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top