This week we kicked off the TLN Top Prospect Rankings, where we do our darnedest to give you the best look at the Leafs you can get for the price you paid to get them. Anyway, in putting together the rankings, our keen observation skills made us notice that not all the kids were prospects or on the Leafs roster already, some of them are what we here at TLN like to call “on the bubble.”
Since it’s August we thought we’d commit a bit of time to looking at these players, and what the future holds for them. Consider this our way of giving something back to the internet (You’re welcome.) The first player up is one we’ve known for a while, it’s Josh Leivo.
Like I said, Josh Leivo has been here for a while. He was a solid draft pick, getting selected in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft by Burke and company, presumably banking on his numbers understating his talent due to playing on a not very good Sudbury Wolves team. Two post draft years of being a point per game player in the OHL established Leivo as a prospect worth watching, and in his first year of pro he was good enough for seven games in the NHL with the Leafs. That was back in 2013-14.
Since that first look in 2013, Leivo has been back with the Leafs every season, but never getting into more than 13 games. This may seem a little odd, particularly because in the last two seasons Leivo managed 5 goals in 12 games, followed by a 10 point in 13 game run. Neither of these performances are bad when you’re getting around 12 minutes a night and there’s little doubt that Leivo has the offensive talent to fit in on a supplementary scoring line somewhere in the NHL.
The weird thing about the Leafs last year was that they were pretty good on scoring, and for the most part an incredibly healthy team, especially in the forward group. This forced Leivo into the bubble of all bubbles. With his waiver exemption long gone, it seemed pretty certain that he would be claimed if he was sent down, so as a 23 year old, entering the prime of his career, Josh primarily was on practice squad duties in the NHL throughout the season. He had a short 5 game conditioning stint with the Marlies, but ultimately played less than a quarter of the season. This was probably the right call for the Leafs, but didn’t do Leivo any favours.
I guess you could say the Leafs did do Leivo so favours. When he did draw into the lineup the majority of the time he was given solid linemates and to his credit he didn’t make them worse. And in the case of where he was given less than desirable teammates to play with, Leivo did show that he could elevate their games as well, albeit we have to assume in a very sheltered environment when he was seeing time with Smith and Martin.
Where we’ll give Babcock credit for sheltering Leivo with Smith and Martin, it’s clear that Leivo was part of line that held it’s own against legitimate NHLers the rest of time. The credit largely sits with how good Nazem Kadri is at what he does, but it’s encouraging that Josh Leivo can ride shotgun against top line forwards…
Since everything about Leivo seems pretty great, it leads to the questions:
- Why didn’t we see more of him?
- What happens next with him?
The first question seems to be covered pretty well by Justin Bourne in his recent post over at The Athletic, looking at what AHLers make it to the NHL:
“And once a player is fortunate enough to find a spot — maybe they were the right mix of familiar to the GM, penalty killer, faceoff winner, not too old, and not too expensive for the salary cap — well then, boom. That guy gets a spot and is now perceived as an NHLer going forward. Future teams looking for fourth line help will always take the guy with the NHL resume over an equally talented player (sometimes even better) whose skill or situation weren’t the perfect fit. Now the other guy is perceived as an AHLer.”
Bourne goes into a lot more detail around this, talking about not only the different skillsets need to be looked at NHL vs. AHL level along with motivating factors for a team to consider recalling a player, but essentially, it comes down to Leivo’s abilities were often not perceived as what was missing from the lineup, and the team may have been more motivated to play the players they brought into the system, not ones inherited from the previous management group.
That brings us to the bigger question and the one most relevant to Leafs fans at this given moment, and that’s what happens next with Josh Leivo?
For the most part, nothing has really changed for Leivo. He is still likely penciled in as the 13th or 14th forward on the Leafs behind a very deep and talented top nine group. He still doesn’t really fit the bill of what Mike Babcock wants in a fourth line winger, and would still face tough competition in earning that spot. Additionally, it still seems unlikely that the Leafs want to lose Leivo without getting anything in return, and that may once again relegate him to the press box, waiting for an opportunity to be an injury replacement.
With Leivo there are also some concerns about his ability to stay healthy, as he’s missed time in every season he’s been with the organization. I can’t imagine that being a deterrent for the Leafs to hang on to him, but it may be challenge they face when trying to get a return for him. In a lot of ways I see Josh Leivo as Toronto’s version of Beau Bennett. A solid utility player who has proven he can add value to an NHL team, but has difficulty staying healthy or retaining a defined role. If that’s what is in store for Leivo, that isn’t too shabby. If Leivo is better than that, it’s certainly a win for the Leafs as well, as long as they retain him.
It seems like the past two years we’ve said that it’s do or die time for Josh Leivo as he comes into camp, and this may be the year that’s true. Last year he proved he was valuable enough to keep off of waivers, this year he’ll probably need to earn playing time in order to finish the year as a Leaf. As much as Leivo shows promise, it may be time for the player and time to part ways in their mutual best interest.