Leafs faced with difficult decision regarding Josh Leivo

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Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SPORTS

In a few hours, the Toronto Marlies will take on the St. John’s IceCaps at Ricoh Coliseum. The game marks the end of Toronto’s longest annual road trip, a necessary evil while their ice surface moonlights as a horse-riding court for the Royal Winter Fair. But it also marks the end of something else; Josh Leivo’s conditioning stint.

Leivo’s conditioning stint was originally scheduled to be for three games, as a byproduct of originally missing enough time due to his lower body injury to have been LTIR-eligible. The team successfully called for a two-game extension, which allowed him to draw in against Lehigh Valley last Saturday and will allow him to play tonight as well. After that, he heads back to the Leafs roster.

But that’s where the problem lies. Once Leivo comes back up, Toronto will be up against the 23-man roster limit once again, meaning that a player will have to go.

From the sidelines, it’s easy to shrug this off as no big deal. After all, the Leafs are currently at thirteen forwards without Leivo involved, and a few seconds look at the spreadsheets or even some video would theoretically point to throwing Ben Smith back on waivers. But we all know that Mike Babcock values him a bunch, so it’s not overly likely that he’s the one who goes.

You could always send down one of your waiver-exempt players, though? Don’t risk losing anybody? Well, it’s still not that simple. Your options at that point become Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, and Nikita Zaitsev.

Matthews, Nylander, and Zaitsev are clearly going nowhere. Brown would’ve been a serious candidate before his four-point night on Thursday, but that likely bought him some time. Hyman is attached to Matthews’ hip at the moment, which leaves Soshnikov as the most realistic option, though he has also added a play-driving element to the fourth line.

Unless they decide to waive a defenceman (it’s not like anybody will notice Frank Corrado being gone at this point), throwing Leivo himself straight to the wire might be the most logical option. This was a scenario I talked about during the preseason before it was clear that Leivo’s injury wasn’t minor. Now, it could make sense more than ever.

Now that the NHL season is more than a month through, rosters are basically locked in and while some injured reserve lists exist, the league is mostly healthy enough that a 23-year-old without a proven track record shouldn’t cause a commotion. While Leivo’s 2015/16 season with the Marlies was impressive; 48 points in 51 games is nothing to scoff at, the bulk of it came while playing with William Nylander or Mark Arcobello (who is much better at getting points at the AHL level). 

While his five goals in twelve games with the Leafs last year might interest a team, they do come attached to a 25% shooting percentage and don’t come attached to any assists. Combine that with the fact that he’s yet to put up a point in this conditioning sting (which could change today), and that he’s, well, coming back from injury, and I find it hard to believe that a team would pick him off.

Not that I would be opposed to him staying with the team either. A situation where Leivo takes Hyman’s place on the Matthews and Hyman drops back to the fourth line would be one I’d have a lot of time for, even if its just to get a taste to see if it could work out. Of course, that all depends on what the cost is; losing a Smith would make it worth it, giving Soshnikov a week below would make it palatable, doing some IR voodoo would make it negligible, but losing a Holland, Corrado, or similar would make it a bit of a coin toss.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens here. Leivo has become a bit of an afterthought in an organization loaded with young forward prospects, but there may still be some NHL potential in him yet. It’s now up to the Leafs to decide whether they want to take the risk of buying in too early, or the risk of ruling themselves out of it.