The title for this post probably lets you know where I’m coming from in regards to attempts to #FreeJoshLeivo. The Maple Leafs have a healthy record and are sitting never the top of the league in standings. There has been very little to complain about. There have been more goals against that most of us are comfortable with. There is some debate over who is the better option as fourth line center, and who is true sixth defenseman, and we’ve seen Mitch Marner put on the fourth line based on union seniority. Some of this seems like it’s the grounds for future concern if it doesn’t improve, but basically Leafs fans should not have anything to complain about, especially if we reflect back over the past decade at all.
Nevertheless Josh Leivo not getting playing time persists upon on us for a number of reasons.
- When he has played, his numbers have been pretty darn good.
- He’s 24 and if does work out, he can been a good top nine forward for a number of years.
- Last time I checked he’s not Matt Martin.
- Is it fair to Leivo that he isn’t getting a shot to show his worth in the NHL?
- (sigh) Asset Management.
These are all very good reasons and worth exploring further, so let’s start with his good numbers.
So the last two seasons tell a lot in regards to why people are hung up on potential offensive production from Leivo. Putting up 5 goals in 12 games is pretty respectable from any player in the league. That’s over a 30 goal pace for an entire season, and that’s pretty rare. For the record, I’m not, nor are most reasonable people asserting that Leivo is a 30 goal scorer, but I would say I’d be comfortable with exploring his abilities further. Similarly I wouldn’t say his .77 point per game pace from last season is truly where he’s at as a player. I would be shocked if Leivo put up 63 points in a full season (I’d be shocked if Leivo played a full season, but more on that later).
Basically all of that is very encouraging, especially with the lower offensive zone start ratio. As you’ll see below, he’s had strong linemates, but you’ll also notice some fairly tough competition.
Last season Leivo spent the majority of his time getting to play on a pretty solid and established line with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, a line that primarily was matched against top offensive competition, and would be expected to play a more defensive role. The line was already excelling in that task before Leivo was added to it, but he didn’t hinder it at all. Kadri had a very similar CF% with and without Leivo, and Komarov had a noticeable decline when Leivo wasn’t playing with him. When playing with Ben Smith and Matt Martin, both Martin and Smith saw a significant increase, while Leivo had a much better go of it when he was away from Martin.
As I mentioned above, the Kadri and Komarov line gave Leivo exposure to going up against some tougher competition, and while the sample is small, there isn’t much doubt that Leivo’s line had an impact and that he wasn’t facing the pillow soft competition one normally associates an AHL callup with.
The next thing we discussed was his age, and part of what we are discussing when we say age is also contract. Leivo needs to get into 39 games this year to remain a restricted free agent. He’ll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, but a restricted free agent who will have to negotiate with the Leafs first. If Leivo continues to demonstrate a competence at the NHL, the Leafs will likely be able to rely on an affordable winger to replace the likely departures of James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov. To say that Leivo replaces JVRs offense is a bit of a stretch, but likely through committee players like Leivo and Kapanen fill the void while giving the Leafs cap flexibility for Matthews, Marner, and Nylander.
Additionally it’s probably smart of the Leafs to move some of their money off of the wing, and reinvest it in the blueline if the chance arises.
HE’S NOT MATT MARTIN!!!
This has to be the biggest case for Leivo, as playing him potentially gives the Leafs a shot at icing four lines that can score. Leivo-Moore-Brown/Marner is not something you hate having on the ice in a sheltered role. And carrying Leivo on the fourth line means that you’ve got a fresh set of legs in third period or between long stretches without a whistle. Basically if you are making your case for who should play on the fourth line based on hockey ability you’re going to choose Josh Leivo over Matt Martin every time. Even if you somehow don’t agree with that, there are plenty of times over the course of the season you probably are comfortable with sitting Matt Martin because he doesn’t have a dance partner on the other team. Remember when we looked at Leivo’s summary stats, here are the stats for Matt Martin…
I can’t disagree with anyone saying that Leivo should be in over Martin. The evidence shows that Leivo makes more sense. What does need to be accepted is that there is no shortage of coaches, players, GMs, and “hockey people” who buy what Martin is selling. They like the fact that if they get thrown into the boards a little hard one shift, there will be a juggernaut coming out to clobber the offender in the near future. They like the fact that when he is on the ice, opposing players will be on the lookout to make sure Martin isn’t near them, they like the fact that Matt Martin is an easy to get along with guy in the locker room and he can play camp counselor to the kids who are away from home for the first time. Also, a lot of them like fights.
Mike Babcock is a very smart coach and I think it’s safe to say the Leafs are run reasonably well. We can look at Matt Martin as a potential blind spot and a means to an end for the coach to feel comfortable that the either 19 guys on the bench feel good about what’s happening. Stressing over Martin playing over Leivo seems like a waste of time, since Leivo is not the kind of player that Babcock would look to use instead of Martin. If Martin comes out, we probably see Fehr and Moore in the lineup at the same time. I’m not asking you to like that, but I am asking you to consider what Justin Bourne wrote about this kind of situation in the preseason…
[Y]our average fourth line NHL player wouldn’t be tearing up the league[AHL] — that’s been proven time and again. Conversely, first line AHL players can generally slot in on a decent NHL line without looking out of place.
When discussing where a player fits into the pro hockey picture, the biggest misconception is the belief that the hockey gods have bestowed NHL talent to some, and only AHL talent to others (that’s likely borne out of the belief that the NHL and AHL are miles apart). It’s column A and column B.
With Leivo not being consider the right type of player for a fourth line role, he’s not really waiting out Martin. He’s waiting out Hyman or Brown or an injury. There is also some debate over whether Leivo would be the Leafs first choice for a longer term injury or if he’d lose out on that assignment to Kasperi Kapanen.
That brings us around to if any of this is fair to Josh Leivo? This might be too hyperbolic, but is anything anywhere really that fair? Josh Leivo has made a pretty good living so far in his young life off of the game of hockey, and that seems pretty fair to me. It’s probably a little unfair to him that he hasn’t had a chance to demonstrate his ability to move beyond his role over the past couple of seasons, but this probably shouldn’t be keeping up anyone at night besides Josh Leivo. Right now the Leafs are winning with him out of the lineup, and benefit from having him as a capable replacement ready to step in as needed. Is it fair to the Leafs that they can’t carry him as a depth option? Ultimately this argument is a bit of a pain in the ass and feeds into the final point that needed to be considered with Josh Leivo, and that’s asset management.
I cringe every time I read a discussion about asset management for a few reasons. The first is probably viewing people as assets, but the reality of the situation is that’s what they are. The second reason I cringe is because asset management has become a synonym for being risk averse.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that Josh Leivo will be a moderate success if or when he moves on from the Leafs. Richard Panik has taught us that success is a very real possibility while Peter Holland has taught us that it can go the other way too. Anton Stralman might be the best example of a guy not finding his way into the Leafs roster and getting dealt for pennies on the dollar and then serve as a constant reminder of what the Leafs could be currently enjoying, though moving Stralman was part of the larger play to bring in Phil Kessel, so that was a much more forgivable offense than letting Panik walk for Morin.
In the case of players like Panik, Holland, Colborne, and others the Leafs were attempting to do right by the player. They weren’t getting their chance on the Leafs and they found them a happy home. Doing that for Leivo isn’t a horrible thing either and sends a good message to potential future Leafs that the organization will look after your interests, but again, ASSET MANAGEMENT!
Leivo has provided a pretty intriguing small sample that probably keeps Lou Lamoriello from dumping him on waivers or trading him for a late round pick to do right by him. Josh is a cheap winger who can score and may score at a rate that most teams wouldn’t scoff at having on their second line. Getting Leivo some time in this season to build up his reputation around league may turn him into an offseason asset, a potential trade deadline asset, or may make another Leaf worth exposing to the trade market. Once Leivo turns 25, his mystery box appeal will sharply decline. There is already enough interest in him that the Leafs have shielded him from waivers, but there is still enough risk aversion that no one wants to give up someone they value for him. The Leafs should probably give him a chance to show his worth, especially since they are willing to do that with Eric Fehr.
Pumping the Brakes On Leivo
There are a few reasons to not be overly anxious to put too many eggs in Leivo’s basket, the most obvious one being his injury history.
That’s a lot of time to miss is a relatively short period of time and typically if you’re having those problems at 22 and 23, you’re going to be having that throughout most of your career. Since Leivo has come to the pro ranks he hasn’t exceeded 63 games in a year, so you’re likely to get about 3/4 of a season out of him. That’s not bad for a cheap winger that you’re slotting into your top nine as needed, but I can see how front offices might struggle to commit a significant lineup spot to him, at least not without a Plan B for him. This in itself isn’t a strong case for why Leivo isn’t playing, but when you look at the next point you can roll your eyes a bit more.
As much as we want to believe that great players playing with other great players always yields the best results, chemistry matters somewhat and when a team is healthy and lines are clicking, a coach isn’t going to stop and throw a wildcard into the mix until a losing streak happens. Last year the Leafs didn’t lose much. They’ve only lost once this year, and the players have been healthy to boot. Perhaps we’re so used to the Leafs being lousy we’ve attached ourselves to the idea that part of the lineup needs to be committed to player development. That’s not really the case anymore, the entire lineup is committed to what Mike Babcock thinks will win, and until the Leafs regularly lose or under perform, he’s not going to insert someone to that mix.
We’ve talked about it a lot before, but wing depth works against Leivo if you don’t consider Matt Martin into the equation, and acknowledge that what Hyman does for his line is something highly valued by Babcock. Nylander, Marner, Brown, Marleau, and van Riemsdyk have jobs over Leivo on skill and talent, without question. Komarov and Hyman add a level of responsibility to the lineup that is valued, and are arguably of the same skill level as Leivo. Kapanen is more talented and skilled than Leivo, but is a Marlie because of his waiver eligibility. Players like Johnsson, Grundstrom, and Bracco seem to be destined for Leivo type roles (or more) in the future as well. Matt Martin is the coaching blind spot and not going anywhere. The depth of the Leafs works against Leivo, and will probably be why we see him walk as an unrestricted free agent over the summer.
How to Make Everyone Happy (except Fehr and Moore)
Is it time to revisit the list of Leafs wingers who are capable of playing center, in hopes of creating a roster hole for a winger?
We’re not there yet, but it does seem perfectly reasonable to consider Marleau, Komarov, Nylander, or Hyman at center in order to move Leivo into the lineup, at least periodically. Maybe the key to this is circling games on the calendar as Nylander at center games and putting Leivo in. Games normally reserved for backup goaltenders can be roster experiment games instead. The Coyotes, Avalanche, Canucks, Sabres, etc. can become the testing ground and guaranteed ice time for someone like Leivo who will eventually be at the point where he needs to play.
Wrap it Up
I’m not sure how much really needs to be said at this point. It’s been six games, and players have definitely sat for six games in a row before, especially at the start of the season. That said, the fact that Leivo and Corrado spent the majority of last season watching games together hasn’t been lost on me, and I not without an appreciation for the fact that Matt Martin should at least be a platooned player and not have his roster spot questioned. All the good things that come with having offensive depth go away if the player you are hoping can provide that depth has barely played all year, and even if it’s once every five games there needs to be some interest in getting Leivo playing.
Finally, and I swear this is the last time I say it, the Leafs are 5-1-0. That’s a very good record. They are happy with the results they are getting doing what they are doing, you are going to be hard pressed to find a coach willing to tamper with that.
Leivo will play, and my money is on us seeing him in the lineup before game 10, but I have my doubts that the Leafs will get anywhere near the 39 games needed to avoid Josh hitting unrestricted free agency. That leaves the Leafs with a few options to explore.
Trade Him- Take the best deal you can get for him knowing that he won’t be returning, ideally doing this at a point where his new team can get him 39 games.
Rent Him- Enjoy the depth that he provides, play him when you need to and except that he’s gone next year.
Sign Him- I can’t imagine Leivo is too keen on signing with a team where he faces an uphill battle for ice time, but anything is possible.
Waive Him- Put him out of his misery and let another team have a shot at him and hope they are in the Western Conference or somehow wind up with a really good player on the Marlies
Play Him- Get him his 39 games and retain his restricted free agency rights.
Taking my own preference out of the equation, all the evidence we’ve seen to date points to the Leafs treating him as an in house rental who will likely walk in unrestricted free agency next year. This might not be the best asset management approach to things, but it may be what is best for the Leafs optimizing their roster for this season.
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