The Toronto Maple Leafs will emerge from the expansion draft relatively unscathed, but they will still lose an asset for nothing.
It’s looking highly likely that one or more of Kerby Rychel, Brendan Leipsic and Josh Leivo will be on the Leafs‘ exposed list, trades notwithstanding.
All three of the above-mentioned players experienced mixed seasons and it’s difficult to pinpoint where they fit in the plans of the Leafs brass moving forward; none of them has cracked the NHL full time, all three are now waiver eligible, and the Leafs are flush with depth on the wings. With the 30 NHL teams submitting their protection lists today at 5 p.m. EST (to be revealed Sunday morning), let’s take a look at how it could shake out.
Acquired in a trade with Columbus Blue Jackets last June for Scott Harrington and conditional fifth round draft pick, the former 19th overall selection in 2013 was an intriguing pickup and was expected to be in the mix at training camp in the Fall.
The California native never looked like challenging for a spot on the Leafs roster and got off to a slow start with the Marlies (three goals and six points in 17 games). After appearing to upset the applecart in Columbus — he reportedly requested a trade after receiving less big-club opportunity than expected — Rychel’s play suggested he perhaps wasn’t happy with his situation early in the year, although he was also adjusting to a new team and system.
It was a much different story from December onward. He was dynamite offensively throughout that month, earning a call-up to the AHL All-Star event after Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen both succumbed to injury. One of just two Marlies forwards to make 70+ appearances this season, Rychel finished the year as the team’s leading scorer with 52 points in 73 games.
His overall points tally is somewhat skewed by his success on the power play, which accounts for almost 56% of his production. I’m always hesitant to look too closely into post-season numbers, but he was largely quiet during the Marlies’ playoff campaign — three of his five total points were accrued on the power play, including both goals, over 11 postseason appearances. Combined with last season’s postseason numbers with Lake Erie, Rychel has posted just 11 points in 28 AHL playoff games.
A 32-game stint with the Blue Jackets in 2015-16 was certainly the longest NHL stint any of three players in this article has received, yet the Leafs declined to give him a look in the NHL this season. Granted, the opportunities were at a premium with the health and depth of the club up front, but his name was rarely mentioned in the conversation when recalls were needed.
Rychel, who isn’t the strongest skater but does bring some scoring ability, size and grit to the table, would be an interesting project for another team requiring some depth on the cheap. There were some rumblings the 22-year-old could be involved in a trade before expansion, as he doesn’t appear to fit into the Leafs’ long-term plans.
The diminutive left winger endured a frustrating 2016-17 after beginning the season with a bang. Registering at least a point in 12 of his first 13 games, Leipsic was one of the league’s leading scorers until December. Injuries curtailed his involvement, but Leipsic finished one point behind Kerby Rychel in Marlies scoring with 51 points in just 49 games.
The Manitoba native has improved his game each year since his arrival from Nashville, hitting the 20-goal mark with the Marlies in 2015-16, and he didn’t look out of place in a six-game stint with the Leafs in late February/early March.
He’s arguably the most dynamic of the three players with his skating and playmaking abilities. His strengths can also be his weaknesses at times; he has a propensity to make one play too many offensively or make unnecessary high-risk plays inside his own zone, and head coach Sheldon Keefe has mentioned that his attention to detail can waver defensively:
I think he had some really dominant stretches of play this season that showed that his skill set and his abilities are beyond this level, but he also continues to be a guy that shows the other side, which is he can be careless or irresponsible with the puck. Continuing to find that balance to make plays and be dangerous offensively but not be careless is a challenge for him to continue to work at. On the other side of it, defensively, he shows he can kill penalties, he shows he can be responsible and hard to play against because he is smart and he gets in position and he’s got some edge and grit to his game, but then he can also be casual and unreliable defensively.
It’s time for him to take that step and recognize that need to find a little bit more consistency in his game. Without question, if you watched his season as a whole, you saw a player that looked like he didn’t belong in the league. It’s about him doing that more consistently and not having that other side reveal itself where he looks like a player that certainly does belong here and has warts in his game.
– Sheldon Keefe, May 19, 2017
The Toronto Marlies’ penalty kill endured fluctuating fortunes this past season, in part due to a merry-go-round of players used and the form of their goaltenders. However, Leipsic was entrusted with that responsibility and flourished in the role at times. Along with Kapanen, he was a real threat to the opposition when in possession shorthanded and he used his speed effectively to close down space defensively.
On the power play, Leipsic averaged a point every other game, with six goals and 25 points good for second best on the Marlies. Had a call-up opportunity come about in the first half of the season, the outlook on Leipsic may have sounded much different right now. Once he ran into injuries, it was never likely he would receive the call as he was playing catch-up with his form and fitness.
Should he remain with the Toronto organization, Leipsic would appear to be a depth option for next season, with a spot in the Leafs’ top nine looking hard to come by at this moment in time.
The luckless Leivo had to sit and suffer through 2016-17, with his NHL opportunities severely limited. Highly productive when in the lineup, Leivo spent the vast majority of his season in the press box wondering if he’d ever get a chance to lace up his skates for meaningful competitive action.
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.
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.
While Mike Babcock couldn’t find a consistent spot for Leivo in the top nine — the Leafs head coach didn’t view him as an ideal fourth liner and he doesn’t kill penalties — there’s little doubt that Leivo is a capable goal scorer, owning a wicked shot that is especially effective on his off-wing. Given time with skilled linemates, I’d venture that he’d be capable of putting up numbers similar to what Connor Brown managed this past year. With the pair both recording 20-goal seasons as rookies in the AHL, the comparison isn’t a total reach.
A case could be made for Leivo being the most NHL-ready of the trio and the best long-term prospect. Of the three, the 24-year-old has appeared in the most NHL games with the Leafs’ organization and has proven he can produce. That said, he’s also a year older than the other two.
The one player I’d be most content to lose in the expansion draft would be Kerby Rychel; his NHL worthiness is in doubt and he wasn‘t as dominant in the American League as expected this past season, particularly at even strength.
It’s a coin toss between Brendan Leipsic and Josh Leivo, with both bringing different elements. You could argue that the Leafs have more small-ish playmakers on the wing than natural goal scorers with size. With that in mind, you would lean toward protecting Josh Leivo. However, with Babcock seemingly not head-over-heels in love with Leivo, perhaps it’s the untapped potential of Leipsic that the Leafs will hold onto.
If it were my decision, I’d protect Leivo with the hope that Vegas opts to select the player with more NHL experience and a higher draft pedigree in Kerby Rychel.