Josh Leivo, a former third-round selection of the Maple Leafs in 2011, played his fourth professional season with the organization in 2016-17.

After battling injury and taking a step back production-wise in the AHL in 2014-15, the 23-year-old winger entered this season coming off of a bounce-back 2015-16 campaign. He tallied 48 points in 51 AHL games, 12 points in 15 playoff games with the Marlies, and five goals in 12 appearances for the big club.

2016-17 Season Expectations

From my preseason write-up on Leivo:

Now waiver eligible, Leivo has an impressive goal-scoring record in his limited NHL stints spread over the past three seasons, potting seven goals over 28 games while averaging just 10:12 a night. He scored five of those goals in 12 games last season. He’s ridden a 21% shooting percentage in the NHL, but he’s a capable finisher with a good shot and can lift the puck in a hurry in tight. A point-a-game AHL producer last season, if he’s not playing for the NHL club in Toronto he will be claimed by, or need to be traded to, another one. He’s likely to stick on the roster to start because of the waivers factor, but he’ll be in a battle for playing time. He brings something unique to the system that would be a bit of a shame to lose – right handed, size, skill down low, finish, and the ability to play the net front on the power play.

The season played out pretty much as anticipated for Leivo. It was expected he would be in tough for playing time, but the Leafs still liked his upside enough to give him a two-year, one-way deal around the league minimum, which was cap friendly enough to keep him on the 23-man roster.

Leivo’s 2016-17 season was similar to his previous NHL season, except he was forced to ply his trade in practice for the most part rather than with the Marlies due to waiver considerations. He dressed for only a dozen NHL games, yet he was quite productive when he played.

2016-17 Season Summary

For all the handwringing about Frank Corrado and Seth Griffith, Leivo unquestionably got the rawest deal of any Leafs depth player this season.

A scratch for the first 30 games of the season, Leivo made his first appearance of the season on December 19th against Anaheim with Tyler Bozak and Ben Smith out injured. He started on the fourth line with Frederik Gauthier and Matt Martin, took a couple of power play shifts, and picked up a +1 on a third-period goal while skating a shift with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.

He sat out the next seven games before making an appearance on the fourth line against Montreal on January 7, but he played just four minutes and change that night.

Leivo finally received something resembling an extended opportunity in the month of February when Nikita Soshnikov went down hurt for the first time. Playing on a line with Martin and Smith, he made an impact in a 7-1 blowout win against the Islanders, sniping the 1-0 goal, adding an assist on an Auston Matthews goal on the power play, and a grabbing another assist on a Matt Hunwick goal in garbage time — his first career three-point game earned in just 9:48 of ice time.

In the next game, the Leafs fell behind 4-0 against Columbus by the midway point of the contest, Babcock shook up his lines (Marner also left the game injured), and Leivo was elevated onto Kadri’s wing. He helped set up two Kadri goals in the span of nine minutes late in the second and early in the third period.

With Brown shifting down onto a line with Bozak and JVR due to Marner’s injury, Leivo joined Kadri and Komarov for a full game against Ottawa and picked up another assist on a Nazem Kadri goal. Two games later came Leivo’s third multi-point effort in the span of five games; he collected two primary assists on goals by Komarov and Kadri against the Jets.

During that extended look in February, Leivo played with a tonne of urgency on the forecheck and in his battles down low, looked to have added a step to his skating compared to years previous, and piled up nine points in 10 games.

When the Leafs were fully healthy again and added Brian Boyle just before the deadline, Leivo played one game next to Boyle and Martin on the fourth line against San Jose. Mike Babcock didn’t like the mix. In the second game of the Leafs’ winless California road trip, Soshnikov re-entered the lineup against the Kings and Leivo returned to the press box.

Leivo was left twisting in the wind again. Hesitant to turn to some of his more skilled forwards (such as a Mitch Marner) in shorthanded situations, Babcock’s fourth-line right winger, in his view, needed to be able to serve on the penalty kill in those crucial games down the stretch.

When Soshnikov went down to injury again in the win against Boston on March 20, Eric Fehr played instead of Leivo versus Columbus because he could fill the void on the penalty kill. After Fehr went down hurt in his first game as a Leaf, Leivo got into one final game against New Jersey on March 23. His last act of the season was, of course, scoring a goal in that game (on the power play).

Leivo picked up an injury that night against the Devils and it spelled the end of his season. The Leafs recalled Kasperi Kapanen from the Marlies on March 27 and the Finnish rookie never looked back. Babcock liked that Kapanen could serve on the PK in addition to the speed he brought to a fourth line with two slower, big-bodied players in Boyle and Martin. It proved to be a shrewd call-up decision, as Kapanen scored key goals against Pittsburgh to clinch a playoff spot and in overtime against Washington in Game 2.

2016-17 Statistics

GPGAPtsPP PointsTOI/g5v5 Pts/60ShotsSh%CF%

Overall, Leivo tallied two goals and eight assists in 13 games while playing 12:34/game on average — good for a 3.12 points-per-60 at 5v5, which was highest on the team (small sample, of course). His 55.3 CF% was the best on the team (again, limited sample), including a 57.7% CF in his 72 minutes of even strength ice time on Nazem Kadri’s wing.

We never got a look at Leivo on Auston Matthews’ wing, but it would’ve been interesting to see that experiment during one of Zach Hyman’s lengthier scoring droughts this season. Leivo prefers his off-wing as a right-hander and has the hands and shot to play there.

Future Outlook

The Leafs injury luck up front in their top nine forward group didn’t help Leivo’s cause last season. Among their six regular top nine wingers, Hyman, Komarov, Brown and JVR all played 82 games, Nylander played 81, and Marner played 77. When an injury did occur in the Leafs top nine and Leivo got a look next to Kadri and Komarov, he was highly productive in that role. It’s hard to envision where Leivo fits in the Leafs lineup next season at the moment, but should he stick around, it’s probable the team will need to turn to their depth options a little more often next year.

In addition to the health factor, Babcock also left his top nine more or less untouched in terms of line mixing after the Leafs sent Milan Michalek to the minors in October. Brown and Nylander swapped places on the right wing at different times depending on recent performance and road vs. home matchups, but that was about the extent of it. The pairs of Komarov – Kadri and Hyman – Matthews were etched in stone, as was the JVR – Bozak – Marner line.

There is also the matter of the expansion draft. The Leafs rookie-heavy forward group means there are enough exemptions up front that the organization could protect Leivo as one of their seven forwards if they so desired. It would appear to come down to one of Leivo, Kerby Rychel and Brendan Leipsic for the seventh and final forward spot, if we assume the franchise values Matt Martin enough to protect him. Of those three, Leivo has appeared in the most NHL games for the franchise and has proven he can produce.

The possible outcomes for Leivo this offseason appear to be: 1) He is claimed in the expansion draft if he’s left unprotected (Vegas might be wiser to claim Martin Marincin and pile up the defensive depth as much as possible, but we’ll see); 2) He is included in some sort of trade; 3) The Leafs keep him around as a quality, cheap depth scoring option (he’s under contract for one more season at a $612,500 cap hit before he becomes an RFA).

Also worth mentioning, should Leafs make a decision sooner rather than later on whether to extend JVR or trade him and ultimately opt for the latter: Leivo isn’t going to replace JVR’s production, but he does provide scoring touch, size on the wing, and a net presence on the power play.