At one point or another, it’s safe to say that most Toronto Maple Leafs fans have felt some sort of sympathy for Josh Leivo, having fallen casualty to head coach Mike Babcock’s “extra roster spot” – let’s call it – the past two seasons. If you can recall, past victims have included Peter Holland, Frankie Corrado, and Nikita Soshnikov – may we have a moment of silence? The local Ontario native felt so outcasted by his childhood team during stretches of last year that he even asked for a trade away from home.
Leivo’s Disgruntle Feels like an Eternity Ago
After appearing in just 29 NHL games over the course of two seasons, Leivo appears to have finally cemented a place in the Maple Leafs lineup, scoring his first goal of the season – a power play marker – in Toronto’s 4-2 win over Washington Saturday night. The former 2013 third-round pick has two points in those seven games, playing just 10:36 a night, but you can expect that amount to increase as the season progresses – even with a current notable RFA inching closer to a return.
“It’s just a work in progress,” said Babcock, on the Leivo line after the Maple Leafs first game of the season. “Leivs is just figuring out what he can do every day – if he plays every day. The biggest thing for him is he’s gotta work every shift. If he does that without the puck, the things with the puck will handle itself.”
Well so far, Leivo has played every day dressing in all eight games for the Maple Leafs this season.
Now instead of Leivo, rookie Andreas Johnsson and newcomer Tyler Ennis appear to be the likely candidates to occupy Babcock’s ill-desired “extra roster spot”, though the Maple Leafs head coach has suggested that everyone will get an opportunity.
But what has changed Babcock’s mind? Has Leivo simply become that much better without, well, playing NHL games?
Best Thing for Leivo May Be Nylander’s Holdout
If it weren’t for the team and our Swedish friend’s inability to strike a new deal, Josh Leivo may have never had the opportunity early on to play on the club’s third line with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown. That “if he plays every day” was glaring in Mike Babcock’s remarks after the first game of the season. But it’s no longer an “if” for Leivo anymore, and while the spotlight is on Kasperi Kapanen and relishing his opportunity next to Auston Matthews – and rightfully so – it appears that Leivo might just be the biggest beneficiary to William Nylander’s absence.
Look no further for an example than on Monday night’s win against the Los Angeles Kings. On the second power play unit, Leivo received the puck on the half-wall in the offensive zone, curled towards the Kings net drawing the defenders in, and dished a nice feed down low to a wide-open Patrick Marleau for the veteran’s first goal of the season.
That same half-wall that Leivo was able to maneuver on would be exactly where Nylander would slot in – especially with the way that the first power play unit has looked. Simply put, Leivo wouldn’t get the freedom, time, and opportunity with the puck to make the plays that he’s been able to make now.
What Does Leivo Bring If Not on the Power Play?
Josh Leivo’s value is not in his ability to put up points for this Maple Leafs team. When he scores, it’s a nice bonus for the offense.
If you read into Babcock’s remarks in terms of hard work without the puck, Leivo’s value is in his ability to move a line, to keep a cycle going, and to be a very tough player to play against – especially against the boards. Watch Leivo closely next game. He excels at battling and making plays in tight against the boards – Auston Matthews-esque. He’ll make breakouts easier for our defense.
And that’s not to say that he can’t score. In fact, Leivo has been able to score at every level he’s played at. The former Kitchener Rangers and Sudbury Wolves forward put up 204 points in 218 OHL games over the span of four seasons. He followed that up by scoring 151 points in 206 games for the club’s AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies over portions of five seasons. And even in the NHL with limited opportunity on the Maple Leafs, Leivo has found some success. In 64 career games over six seasons, the 6-foot-1 winger has 24 points – playing mostly third and fourth line minutes.
That’s why the Maple Leafs played hardball with Leivo for what feels like an eternity, having him sit in the NHL pressbox, night after night knowing that if they tried to get him playing time in the AHL, he would be claimed on waivers. The organization saw a lot of value in him as a player that could not be wasted – and keep in mind that this is a team that put both Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney on waivers.
But really, we shouldn’t be surprised. As has been the motto since the new regime has taken over: patience is a virtue.
Leivo is looking like a really nice fit, at a really nice time.
Michael Singh is a sports journalism graduate student at Centennial College in Toronto. If he is not spending his time on the newsdesk interning at Sportsnet or playing competitive NHL 19 (think you can beat him?), you can bet he’s found himself deeply engraved in some sort of Toronto sporting event — probably the Toronto Maple Leafs.