Last night, the Vegas Golden Knights drafted the base layer of their hockey team, claiming 30 players and adding a couple of others from teams across the league. A lot of clubs, in much more dire situations than Toronto, gave up draft picks and/or exempt prospects to keep the new club away from their talent, while the Leafs were one of the only teams to lose a player that wasn’t on their regular roster.
They did, however, lose one of their more hyped-up prospects in winger Brendan Leipsic. At least, he was hyped up. From the moment the Leafs decided that he was “eighth man”, so to speak, a distinct shift began to occur as far as fan perception went; suddenly, he’s become a spare-part bubble player that probably won’t ever make the NHL.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that losing him is the worst thing the Leafs have ever done. Toronto was kind of stuck thanks to his (and others’) waiver eligibility and in the grand scheme of things, losing a player that was unlikely to carve a permanent spot in the Leafs lineup at training camp this year isn’t the end of the world. It would’ve been nice to cash him out for more than saving somebody else, but given that the market for smaller forwards who haven’t shown clear NHL success is historically weak, nearly to a fault, there wasn’t much they could do their either.
But let’s not lie to the new fans over in Las Vegas; they’re getting a very good prospect.
Long before the Leafs acquired him, the native of Winnipeg was showing signs of potential. In his Draft+1 year, Leipsic scored 49 goals and added 71 assists in 68 games with the WHL Champion Portland Winterhawks, leading the entire league in both goals and points. Leipsic’s point total was the fifth-highest of any player in his Age-18 year in league history at the time, with Regina Pats forward Sam Steel leapfrogging him this year. His production took a step back in the following year as Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand’s roles with the team grew even further, but he still finished with a strong 91 points in 60 games, still near the top of the league.
He did this while developing a reputation as “the most annoying prospect in hockey“, averaging about 100 penalty minutes per year in his last three seasons of junior hockey. From there, he hopped over to the Milwaukee Admirals, putting up a rather solid 35 points in his first 47 AHL games.
Things were looking pretty good for him within the Nashville organization, but then the Predators decided to make a push and looked directly into a set of blue and white eyes. In came Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, out went Leipsic, salary cap dump Olli Jokinen, and a 1st round pick.
Leipsic continued to find success in Toronto, finishing his year with 22 points in his final 32 regular season and playoff games. At the end of the 2014/15 season, he found himself fifth in points-per-game among regular AHL rookies, with two of the players ahead of him being his own teammates in Connor Brown (2nd) and William Nylander (1st).
Since then, Leipsic has continued to excel. He flirted with a point per game pace for a while in 2015/16, scoring 20 goals and adding 34 assists in 65 games, before exceeding the mark this year with 51 points in 49. Of all players who were in their Age 24 year or younger, Leipsic was third in points-per-game this year, finishing behind fellow Marlies forward Seth Griffith and Stanley Cup Playoffs standout Jake Guentzel.
The good news for Leipsic and the Golden Knights? While it starts to fall off from here if he doesn’t make the cut this season, 22-year-olds in the AHL that score at over a point per game pace still have pretty good odds at making it to the NHL and having some success. Even getting rid of the 2012/13 crew of NHL-ready players filling in during the lockout, names like Upshall, Fleischmann, Purcell, Pacioretty, Perreault, Nyqvist, Namestnikov and Cousins give reason for optimism there.
Besides the raw numbers, there are a lot of things to like in Leipsic’s game. While his 200-foot game isn’t perfect, it’s good enough that he’s seen some penalty kill time. He’s not scared to throw a hit despite his size, and he’s certainly not scared to mix it up with opponents, be it in skirmishes or just through yapping and getting under their skin. He’s got excellent vision, a knack for finding his teammates, and isn’t shy to take his chances on a one-timer on occasion.
Most impressive to me, though, is his ability to carry the puck. If you’ve got a team that actively avoids the dump and chase, Leipsic is the guy for you; his ability to generate speed with the puck and find open lanes to cross the ice fooled far too many AHL forwards and defencemen last year, and was key in establishing offensive zone pressure for the Marlies in just about any situation. It’s perhaps the strongest facet of his game, yet something that doesn’t get a ton of hype.
Ultimately, losing a player like him was Toronto’s cost for building up a deep prospect pool by any means necessary. You can’t get too attached to your players because once the surplus begins to bottleneck, one or two have to be cut loose, even if they’re ones you don’t want to let go of.
That’s the case here. If you’re a fan of the Golden Knights, don’t listen to the downplaying that’s happening right now. Especially with the team as shallow up front as it is right now, there’s a pretty good chance that Leipsic will find his way into being a top-nine winger on your team, if not better. The good thing is that your team, because of its lack of forward depth, can give him the opportunity he deserves.
If all goes to plan, don’t be shocked if he’s one of the players your team keeps in the long run. The best case scenario is that he’s a player is so successful that it almost makes Toronto regret letting him go, while also accepting that this environment wouldn’t have given him the necessary room to grow.