Are the Leafs preparing to sneak Josh Leivo through waivers?

Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Josh Leivo is one of the last surviving pieces of rebuilds past; of Brian Burke era Draft picks, he’s one of six who still remaining under contract with the team. But at as a 23-year-old, his time is starting to run out if he plans on making a graduation to the big club. This has made his quiet preseason surprising; not only has he not really contributed, he’s also straight up not been in the lineup.

If I had to guess, there’s a level of intent to this; the Leafs are likely trying to set him up to clear through waivers in the next few days.

Small Samples

First, let’s have a quick discussion about just how little Leivo has played this preseason. Specifically, he played in the September 29th game in St. Catharines, in which the team and league were required to put out next to no video outside of the odd highlight and the initial stream, and no on-ice stats were publicly recorded.

In this game, Leivo was played with Frederik Gauthier and Brendan Leipsic on a 3rd/4th line that we think probably played lower minutes, but again, can’t really tell.

Due to the quick turnaround of games to close the preseason, there’s a very good chance that he will, get a second shot tonight, though, in the Leafs’ game against the Red Wings in Hamilton. Again, not being a traditional NHL rink, there will be a minimal expectation of video or statistics.

Granted, most NHL teams should know better than to rely on a few preseason games to decide whether a player is a player, but it’s very curious that the young man’s games will come in the games with the least amount of post-live data.

It’s worth noting that Leivo has told the media that he had a “physical setback” that kept him away from the ice for a bit, though nobody’s been quite able to pinpoint when that happened, just that he claims to be fine now.

A Market Ready To Burst

The thing about pre-season waivers is that, quite frankly, they’re not overly dangerous. Last year, only two players were claimed from the first wave eleven days before puck drop and opening night, and they were Kevin Poulin and Toronto’s very own Frank Corrado. This is despite 195 players being placed through the wire over the course of twelve days, with many of them clearly being capable of playing an NHL shift.

The process is usually pretty straightforward. Teams looking to move their clear AHLers that happen to have NHL contracts to the affiliates in question will send them through quickly; in the first three days last year, 93 players were sent down, all of them being in that Ryan Hamilton, Jerry D’Amigo, Greg McKegg, and Philippe Paradis tier (the good ol’ days, if you will).

The tougher cut decisions start to slowly eke in over the next few days, followed by the blatant cap dumps that teams would probably like to keep in the organization but would gladly take the salary off the books for (last year, players like Colin Greening, Ben Scrivens, and Bryan Bickell fit this description). 

Finally, on the last day before the season starts, one more purge happens, with a mix of some of the prior categories, but also a few names that still have a shot of being NHL regulars with decent contracts attached to them. Toronto used that eleventh-hour last year to waive Byron Froese, Sam Carrick, Matt Frattin, Andrew Campbell, and TJ Brennan; four of those five players ended up back on the Leafs for some amount of time throughout the year.

Players waived heading into the start of the season

Days Til Puck Drop 2015 Daily 2015 Total 2016 Daily 2016 Total
12 0 42 6 6
11 42 55 12 18
10 13 93 21 39
9 38 104 18 57
8 11 108 10 67
7 4 124 15 82
6 16 135 5 87
5 11 148    
4 13 156    
3 8 164    
2 8 193    
1 29 195    
0 2 197  

This year, there have been significantly fewer players passed through the wire compared to other years. There might be some reasons for this; teams using NHL two-ways less frequently in favour of straight up AHL deals, or maybe just straight up fewer waiver-eligible veterans making it into training camps on the whole. A major one could be the World Cup of Hockey; teams are perhaps keeping players up to make sure their main roster staples aren’t being overworked by tighter than usual preseason schedules.

But right now, the gap is significant; a 36% drop of waived players compared to the same amount of days remaining last season. This should mean that the last few days will include a huge glut of players on the wire.

Now, does that mean that a team will just forget about Josh Leivo? Probably not. But it will mean that many teams will have their roster basically set in stone at the same time. Those who don’t, quite frankly, will have a lot to choose from. Is a 23-year-old with some promise but also fewer than 30 NHL games played going to be the biggest standout in crunch time? I’m not sold that will be the case. If I were a betting person, placing him on waivers anytime between the 9th and the 11th will put him in a huge crowd at a time where teams don’t have much flexibility to dive in.

Why Bother?

I will preface this area by saying that I don’t see Leivo as a long-term piece in the Leafs organization. While it’s easy to point to an AHL season where the Innisfil native scored 60 points in 66 regular season and playoff games, a huge improvement on a 32-in-51 regular season the year prior, I’m not sure if he was the driver or the passenger. Leivo spent a staggering amount of time with William Nylander and Mark Arcobello (along with a quality third forward on each respective line), had heavy powerplay minutes, and racked up his share of secondary assists.

That’s not to say that he was a bad player by any means, far from it, but he certainly was put into a position to succeed by one of the most dominant young minor league teams we’ve seen in quite some time. Not to mention, Leivo typically plays the left wing, a position filled to the brim with veterans and soon to be supplemented by competition from other, younger, and perhaps better prospects. While it would be nice to see a kid drawing comparisons to a player like Lupul get a shot to truly be the usurper of King Joffrey’s throne, there simply isn’t the room.

The good news is that, while a single year of that will likely leave both old and new-school managements to raise their eyebrows, repeating that would likely do a world of good for his reputation outside of the league. If you can make him an invaluable commodity for a couple of weeks, you can spend the year pumping him back up with the Marlies. There, he’d presumably compete with Trevor Moore, Brendan Leipsic and Kerby Rychel for top left wing minutes, and likely continue to earn lots of powerplay time. Placing him with a centre like Byron Froese (even more likely to be waived and cleared) or Colin Smith will ensure that he has someone to continue to make plays with.

If he succeeds, he will soon prove to be a useful trade chip. While it’s hard to sell the “soon to be 24-year-old prospect” angle to some, those same people are more likely to listen to the “stuck in the depth chart young forward” angle, particularly with his $612,500 cap hit through 2017/18 considered. For a team operating under the Chicago model (expensive core, cheap secondaries), perhaps even the Hawks themselves, a Leivo that has proven himself for another half season could be seen as a shrewd piece to pick up from teams that could offer similarly touted assets a little further behind in their development.

The only way for the Leafs to realistically pull that type of move, however, is for him to be on the Marlies. Players like James van Riemsdyk won’t be moved out of the top six to give a forward with little NHL experience a shot. The Leafs are more than likely aware of this.

So why not do what you can to make sure he goes down? In limiting his preseason hype train and holding off until the end of the exhibitions to make significant cuts, I think they’ve got a good chance of doing just that.

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  • Ian

    I enjoyed the article until i stumbled over “rom”
    A spelling mistake form a managing editor?? Really??

    Bwahaha just joking….
    I really enjoy your content and creativity jeff.
    Every one who has graced this website deserves a huge applause, its my go-to for intelligent, fact based articles.
    You guys put out the best articles that are intelligently fan-based, with a side of humour at times .
    Living on Vancouver Island, my connection to the leafs depends heavily on the Internet. You guys easily beat out the tabloid papers and other tml and hockey blogs in my world
    .Thanks for your time 🙂

    • Tigon

      That I know. Injury aside, I thought this was going to be Leivo’s season to make it. Hopefully he plays well enough to be considered with Soshnikov and Rychel for first call ups.