This is the first in a series looking at the Leafs’ expiring contracts at the end of this season. The premise is to present different opinions on the subject to hash it out. Today, myself and Ian Tulloch will be the contributors.
We’re going to be talking about Joshua Leivo, and whether the Leafs should trade him now, or hold on to him.
For reference, here are the stats Leivo has put up in recent years:
Keep Him, by Ian Tulloch
Justin Bourne wrote an article recently that’s made me think long and hard about how we evaluate hockey players. Some guys are put into an excellent position to succeed, and unsurprisingly, do very well in these situations. Whether it’s playing with great players, getting tons of PP time, going up against weaker competition, or just having the confidence that the coach is going to play you 82 games. There are some players who are afforded plenty of opportunity to succeed. Josh Leivo is not one of those players.
Over the past two seasons, Leivo has only played 25 games at the NHL level. What’s impressive is that he scored 15 points in this limited opportunity, which is nearly a 50-point pace. Does that mean he’s going to keep scoring at a 2nd line level? Probably not; it’s largely driven by a high on-ice shooting percentage. Realistically, he’ll probably drop down to more of a 3rd line scoring level.
What is sustainable, though, is his ability to drive play. He controlled 56% of the shot share in his 12-game stint in 2015-2016, and 55% during his stint last season (that’s Corsi for my fellow #analytics nerds). Although it’s a small sample, shot metrics stabilize much faster than shooting percentages. Even though it’s just a 25-game sample, Leivo’s results are a very good sign that he can drive play at the NHL level.
Over the past two seasons, Leivo has succeeded with every opportunity he’s been given. Most fans probably forget that he actually outscored Connor Brown at the AHL level in 2015-2016 (Leivo scored 0.94 PPG, while Brown scored 0.85 PPG). We’re not going to use AHL stats as gospel, but it’s another piece of evidence indicating that Leivo can produce. Even at the NHL level, Leivo was doing the things that make him such an effective player. He was winning board battles, keeping up with the speed of the team (which has been the biggest knock on his game), and getting himself into open space where he could use his terrific wrist shot.
Despite putting up great numbers and passing the eye test in his 13 games last year, Leivo was relegated to the press box because he didn’t kill penalties or play the ‘team dad’ role. Now, I’m personally of the opinion that the Leafs should use their better players on the penalty kill (ie. Marner, Kadri) since (the evidence shows that the best penalty killers at suppressing chances are typically star players), but that’s a conversation for another day. Assuming Toronto’s penalty kill dynamics don’t change, Leivo appears to be on the outside looking in. Considering he’s waiver eligible, that leaves Toronto in a tough position.
So what should the Leafs do? I know the popular opinion seems to be that Toronto should trade Leivo and at least try to acquire an asset for him instead of losing him for nothing on waivers, but I’m of a different mindset. I genuinely believe that Leivo is an NHL player who can play in your Top 9, or at the very least on your 4th line. Scoring wingers that can drive play don’t grow on trees, and considering the Leafs are going to be in a position where they need cheap talent to fill in the roster, I don’t think they should give up on a player who can clearly fit that role.
I’m not a fan of trading young NHL players for draft picks because I feel that the team giving up the known quantity is losing the trade because of humans’ natural tendency to overvalue the unknown. After the 2nd round, there’s a less than 20% chance that you’re going to draft an NHL player. What you’re essentially asking when making a trade like this is if you would prefer a player with a 100% chance of becoming an NHLer, or a 20% chance.
I used that clip for comedic purposes, but I genuinely believe that this is a bias we have when it comes to how much we value draft picks. Although a pick in the 4th round may have higher upside than Josh Leivo, it’s very unlikely that they’ll become as good as him. I like to make my decisions based on what’s probabilistic, so I believe that Josh Leave is worth much more to the Leafs than a 4th round pick.
I would keep him on the roster as the 13th forward this year, then have him compete for a spot as a regular in the 2018-2019 season when there are more winger spots available; the Leafs are probably going to two of JVR/Komarov/Bozak next offseason (I think Nylander will slide in at centre in place of Bozak if he leaves, thus opening a spot on the wing). Toronto is not going to have the same injury luck that they did last year, so having a player like Leivo capable of stepping into the lineup is a valuable asset to a team looking to contend. Even if he’s behind Kapanen on the depth chart, I would argue that it’s better to keep Leivo on the roster for when they really need him (2018 and beyond) rather than losing him for a late round pick, or worse, nothing.
Trade Him, by Ryan Hobart
I really like Leivo as a player. He came up through the ranks from a dark time in Toronto prospects, when Stuart Percy and Frederik Gauthier were atop the pool. Leivo has stuck around, continually improving along the way.
His time in the NHL has been limited, but it’s been largely successful. He’s been able to score a lot for how little time he’s been given, and his shot attempt numbers are definitely on point. As detailed by Ian above, there are really good numbers to boast about. The sample size is too small on both the Corsi and the point-scoring front to have complete confidence, but it is an encouraging start.
The situation with Leivo is tricky, but it comes down to opportunity. Looking towards the upcoming 2017-18 season, there really isn’t a hole that Leivo can fit into. And I don’t think it’s going to get any better through the following 2 years. It’s possible that Van Riemsdyk could be on the way out, but a number of wingers could be on their way in. Kapanen, Johnsson, Bracco, Grundstrom to name a few who could easily leapfrog Josh Leivo in the depth chart.
I would trade Leivo now because of two key things. The first is that I believe he will be forced into a waivers situation very soon with the continued improvement of Kasperi Kapanen. The longer we go without seeing Leivo play hockey, the less sure we’re going to be that he actually can play hockey. Tendency will be to favour the player lighting it up for the Marlies, and to a degree that’s not incorrect.
The second is, because the Leafs are on an upwards track of success, it will be more valuable to have a draft pick come back which we can use to draft and develop (hopefully) another player to join the team later on. The Leafs are going to start having worse and worse draft positions, so having a large number of selections is exactly how you should go about maintaining depth. The mentality of adding lottery tickets is an important one to maintain. To switch analogies, holding on to all of your chips without cashing them in isn’t going to help you out.
In conclusion, I’m very aware Leivo is a good player, and if a hole opens up through trade or injury, I’ll be very confident in his ability to jump in. But I think it’s best to capitalize on the opportunity to hit the reset button to open up a hole in the winger depths, and add a draft selection for later on.
The decision isn’t easy to make, and there are two very good approaches here. Leivo is being given an opportunity to play his way into a fourth line spot this training camp, and it will be very interesting to keep an eye on that situation.
What would you do with Josh Leivo? Does he fit into the roster this year? Next year? Or should he be on his way out? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!