TORONTO – Remember, they didn’t want you.
Half good-natured chirp, half motivational pre-game speech, this is what NHL players have been barking at their teammate before a player’s return engagement against his former club. The one that traded him away or refused to re-sign him.
An oldie but a goodie, “they didn’t want you” has been tossed around dressing rooms for decades, and in the case of the Vegas Golden Knights—an impressive collection of try-hard castoffs and contractual misfits—it could be directed at a different face every night.
Toronto didn’t want Brendan Leipsic, the quick, smallish winger with the soft hands and an eye for smart plays. The Maple Leafs had too many in that mold and chose to expose Leipsic in June’s expansion draft. Vegas pounced.
As Leipsic draws back into the Knights lineup after sitting five games as healthy scratch, replacing William Carrier, fellow Vegas forward Rielly Smith is encouraging his teammate to have a big night.
Head coach Gerard Gallant, discarded himself by Florida last season, concedes the revenge angle factored slightly into penning Leipsic’s name on Monday’s lineup card. But since Leipsic put up four assists and a plus-3 rating in his eight October games, he would’ve been getting back in sooner or later.
“He played for this team before. We expect him to have some good jump,” Gallant says, smiling. “He’s a good hockey player, and we like him a lot, so I’m looking forward to watching him tonight.”
Will Leipsic be skating with a chip on his shoulder in his only game at Air Canada Centre this season?
“Absolutely,” says the 23-year-old. “There’s a lot of guys here with chips on their shoulders. I think that’s why we’ve been successful. We work hard as a team and come and compete every night.
“We’ve got a mix of guys trying to establish themselves in the NHL, like myself, and other veterans who are trying to keep proving they can play in the league.”
So far, there’s proof. The NHL’s 31st franchise has accomplished the unthinkable, going 9-4 in their first 13 games despite injuries to the top three goaltenders on their depth chart. Despite playing in a tougher division, the Knights ride into Toronto with a superior record and goal differential than their much-hyped hosts.
“People weren’t expecting much from us this season. We were out to prove them wrong,” says Leipsic. “It shows how competitive we’ve been, especially with three goalies down and on our fourth goalie already in a dozen games. It’s been a fun ride.”
Significantly less fun were the weeks this off-season leading up to the unveiling of the protected lists, which drew a line between the wanted and unwanted.
Naturally, Leipsic’s fate was out of his hands but occupying his thoughts. Toronto opted to protect fourth-line veteran Matt Martin and frequent healthy scratch Josh Leivo over the prospect who was ripping up the AHL for the Marlies at better than a point-per-game pace.
Looking back, Leipsic says it wasn’t a shocker.
“The [Leafs] don’t really tell you much. Guys who were going to be protected probably have a good idea, but guys who weren’t didn’t know much. It’s on your mind for sure,” Leipsic recalls.
“When you get left exposed, especially a young guy like myself, and seeing the Leafs lineup the way it was, it’s no secret that it would’ve been challenge to crash. So any other opportunity would’ve been nice. I’m glad I found it here in Vegas.”
Signed through 2018-19 at a $650,000 cap hit, Leipsic has a chance to grow with Vegas after being passed over twice already.
A third-round pick by Nashville in 2012, the forward was acquired by Toronto as part of the Cody Franson deal in 2015, when the club dove headfirst into sell mode.
The following season, Leipsic was called up for a six-game audition with the big club and made an instant impact in February 2016. The Winnipeg native scored in his debut in Vancouver—a game-winner in front of his cheering parents broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada, no less—and added a pair of assists before returning to the minors for good.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock has kept an eye on the one they let walk, and was impressed with how quickly he’s gained Gallant’s trust.
“We knew Leiper was a good player here. We liked his tenacity. We just didn’t have a spot for him,” Babcock said. “In the end, you have to make some decisions, but you’re always happy when guys go elsewhere and they can play in the NHL.”
Fun story: Leipsic’s return to the team that didn’t want him has come with a nice welcome-back gift.
That first-goal puck from his Vancouver debut?
Leipsic couldn’t locate it. Worried it was lost forever, he reached out to Brad Lynn, the Leafs’ director of team operations.
Toronto had the puck framed for him and made sure it was returned to its rightful owner Monday morning.
“Glad they found it,” Leipsic says. “It’s a nice little thing for my memory bank.”
Leipsic is still looking for his first goal at Air Canada Centre and his first as a Golden Knight. His colours have changed, but his sole focus remains on establishing himself as an everyday NHLer.
“It’ll be nice to see Brendan Leipsic have a big game tonight, but I’m sure he’d come with his best effort no matter who we’re playing,” says Smith.
“It might be a little sweeter if he does it in this building.”