Josh Leivo received the Frank Corrado treatment this season. Good enough that the Leafs knew they would lose him if they put him on waivers, but apparently not good enough to crack the big league lineup. For some reason, though, it didn’t quite get the same attention as Corrado’s treatment did. Maybe it was because the Leafs were #ActuallyGood in 2016/17 while the Corrado saga began during the 2015/16 season. Maybe it was because Corrado himself was still around and still sitting in the press box right beside Leivo every night until he was traded to the Penguins at the deadline. Maybe it’s because Leivo eventually got into the lineup for 13 games when Nikita Soshnikov went down with an injury before Leivo himself was injured.
Whatever the case may be, Leivo deserves a better opportunity next season than he was afforded during the 2016/17 season. Leivo didn’t play in a professional game this season until he was sent down to the Marlies on a five-game conditioning assignment on November 1st. He then sat in the press box watching the Leafs play until he got into a game against the Ducks on December 19th in which he recorded 0 shots in 12:37 of ice time. The next time he got into a game was January 9th where he was given all of four minutes and 17 seconds of ice time, during which he recorded two shots while taking a minor penalty. A month later, Soshnikov went down with an injury which meant it was Leivo time. In his second game of this stint, Leivo recorded a goal, two assists and five shots on goal in 9:48 of ice time. This seemed to gain Mike Babcock’s trust, as the next game Leivo’s ice time shot up to just under 15 minutes in which Leivo again recorded five shots on goal and registered two assists, both being at even strength. The ice time and point production, along with continued solid shot rates, continued until he was put into the press box once again after a game on February 28th against the San Jose Sharks in which he recorded an assist on the power play and one shot on goal in 13 minutes of ice time. He didn’t play another game until March 23rd against the New Jersey Devils, when he scored a goal on the power play to go along with three shots on goal in twelve minutes of ice time. Leivo didn’t play another game after that, after suffering an alleged injury.
Babcock’s favourite explanation for not finding a place for Leivo in the lineup is that he didn’t kill penalties. I think that’s a pretty weak excuse for not playing a guy who had ten points in 13 NHL games this season, especially when you look at the process which led to those results. At even strength, Leivo recorded one goal and six assists in his 134:45 even strength minutes. He also recorded 21 shots on goal in that time, which translates to 9.35 shots per hour, producing 5v5 shots at a better rate than every Leaf not named Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri or James van Riemsdyk. He also led the team in score adjusted relative shot attempt differential at +5.59%, while both lines he played on posted highly positive shot differentials with him on it.
Leivo played over 60 even strength minutes with Kadri and Leo Komarov and, surprise, they thrived. During the hour of ice time, this line was intact, they operated at a +9.57 adjusted shot differential. He also played just over 27 minutes with Ben Smith and Matt Martin and still managed to carry them to a +8.06 relative shot differential. The same line, only with Soshnikov substituted for Leivo, operated at a -7.39 shot attempt differential, but in a much bigger sample size of 141 minutes. Obviously, we only have a bunch of small sample sizes due to Leivo only playing in 13 games, but he was providing a very positive impact in his limited opportunity. A little regression seemed to be probable, but he was making everyone he played with better. Leivo has also scored at a good rate in the AHL and he scored five goals in 12 games with the Leafs last year before suffering a concussion. He deserved a permanent, or at the very least more frequent, spot in the lineup in 2016/17. I’m not sure what else he could’ve done to get into the lineup over Soshnikov or Martin, but I digress.
So now what? Leivo seems to be a prime candidate to be taken in the expansion draft, but there are a couple of other potential targets. Someone like Martin Marincin or Kerby Rychel could be scooped up instead, but it might be best for Leivo’s sake to be taken by Vegas. The Leafs’ forward lineup will most likely look pretty similar to how it looked at the end of the playoffs, so it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be given the shot he’s earned and he’ll be 24 in a month. The situation becomes increasingly muddled when you take into account the three years remaining on Martin’s contract, Kapanen likely cracking the team and Brendan Leipsic coming off a huge year in the AHL.
Leivo’s future is unclear, to say the least, but wherever he ends up, I hope he’s given the opportunity he’s earned next season.
*statistics courtesy of corsica.hockey, stats.hockeyanalysis.com and NHL.com