When the William Nylander soap opera finally concluded in Toronto it was inevitable that Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas had to make room on the roster for the restricted free agent. His first move was to temporarily send top-five defenseman Travis Dermott down to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies while buying time to mull over his options. Since the Leafs suddenly had 24 players on their 23-man roster, a trade was expected by most of the team’s fans and media and Dubas didn’t disappoint them.
On December 3rd the club announced that 25-year-old winger Josh Leivo had been dealt to the Vancouver Canucks for 22-year-old fellow forward Michael Carone.
It definitely wasn’t earth-shattering news since Carone was toiling in the AHL with the Utica Comets and Leivo was basically a fourth-liner with the Maple Leafs. The move was seen by some as Dubas doing Leivo a favor by shipping him out of town while others believed head coach Mike Babcock simply didn’t want or need him.
The Leafs originally took the 6-foot-2-inch, 210 lb native of Inisfil, Ontario in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft back in 2011 with the 86th overall pick. Leivo had played junior hockey with the Sudbury Wolves and Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League and showed a pretty good scoring touch with 173 points in 196 games.
His pro debut came in 2011/12 when he appeared in a lone game with the Marlies, but was sent back to junior the next season to finish his last year of eligibility. When the 2013/14 season rolled around Leivo was a regular with the AHL club and racked up 23 goals and 42 points in 59 contests. He also made his NHL debut that year as he was called up by the Leafs for seven games and chipped in with a goal and assist.
Leivo experienced deja vu the next two years as he played 51 times for the Marlies in each season and headed across town to suit up with the Maple Leafs when needed. He was especially noticeable in his 12-game stint with the big boys in 2015/16 when he contributed five goals.
It was around this time when many Leafs fans decided Leivo deserved time on the first two or three lines due to his scoring touch. It wasn’t to be though as he was caught in no-man’s land for the next two years. He played just 29 games with the Leafs during that span as the club apparently didn’t want to risk losing him on waivers if they assigned him to the Marlies, but Babcock didn’t feel he deserved consistent ice time in the NHL.
Whatever the reason, Leivo found himself in the press box on most nights and still managed to help the cause when he did play with 14 points in those 29 outings.
It looked like he was about to catch a break when the 2018/19 campaign faced off as Leivo suddenly found himself as a Leafs’ regular due to the Nylander contract impasse. He skated on the fourth line most nights, but at least it was a step forward. He appeared in 27 games this season before being moved and collected four goals and two assists while receiving an average of 10 minutes and 32 seconds of ice time per game.
Once Nylander signed the writing was more or less on the wall for the popular young man though as Dubas quickly needed roster space.
The Leafs stated publicly in the past that Leivo was an NHL-calibre and worthy player and would try to accommodate him by sending him elsewhere if the right circumstances arose. Those circumstances reared their head on December 3rd and Toronto fans bade him farewell as the dominoes started to fall.
It looks like Leivo now has a new lease on life with the struggling Canucks and he’s determined to take advantage of it. In his first four outings with Vancouver, his ice time jumped over four minutes a game to an average of 14:41 a night. He notched a goal in his first outing with his new teammates and added a goal and assist in his most recent contest for three points in four games. But what has been most impressive has been his play without the puck as he clocked in with a plus-six rating in that quartet of games.
Canucks’ GM Jim Benning has long been an admirer of Leivo and knew the perfect time to call Dubas regarding a trade was right after Nylander re-signed with the Leafs. Leivo’s making just $925,000 this season and will become a restricted free agent in July. Benning realized Dubas didn’t really want an NHL roster player in return and now has a top-nine forward in his lineup in return for the prospect Carone.
It was a smart move by Benning and Leivo’s early play on the west coast has proven that. Vancouver has added size and strength in Leivo along with a player with an NHL shot and somebody who knows how to take care of his own end.
Many players in Leivo’s situation would have tried to force a move earlier, but he was patient and quietly accepted his role without any complaining. It’s debatable if that was the right move since he was drafted almost eight years ago now and had skated in just 84 NHL games before the trade. What’s done is done though and it now looks like Leivo is on a a mission to make up for lost time.