Josh Leivo faces uphill climb to make Leafs despite strong showing

Morgan Rielly scored on the power play and the Toronto Maple Leafs added two empty net goals to beat the Buffalo Sabres.

TORONTO – The numbers simply don’t add up.

On a Toronto Maple Leafs team blessed with 10 proven top-nine forwards – and a bunch of intriguing options beyond that – the looming roster crunch is tough to ignore with training camp winding into its second week.

You certainly don’t have to tell Josh Leivo how tough it’s going to be to carve out a regular role with the team. The 24-year-old winger was caught in lineup limbo all of last season, dressing for just 18 games despite producing whenever he played, and has arrived at this camp hellbent on changing his fate.

“I’m working as hard as I can to keep a job,” Leivo said Friday after Toronto’s 3-0 exhibition win over Buffalo. “There’s not too many spots, as you can see, on this team any more. Maybe a couple years ago it might have been a little easier.

“Now it’s a bunch of young guys who have a lot of skill and I’ve got to do everything I can to crack that squad.”

His situation offers a reminder of how much context matters in hockey. You must consider how a player is used, and what opportunities he’s given, when gauging individual success.

Leivo had 10 points in 13 games for the Leafs last season despite averaging 12:34 of playing time – looking and producing like a NHLer every time he got the chance to be one.

He didn’t play more because the team was as healthy as it was successful. Outside of a two-week conditioning stint, he wasn’t sent to the American Hockey League because he almost certainly would have been lost on waivers before he could get there.

At least one rival team made a serious trade inquiry with the Leafs, but found the asking price to be prohibitively high.

That’s the toughest part: Toronto values what he brings. Leivo was protected from Vegas in the NHL Expansion Draft and won’t be parted with by this organization lightly. However, absent an injury, he appears to be facing incredibly long odds to dress for the Oct. 4 season opener in Winnipeg.

“This is the hardest camp I’ve been at in all my years,” said Leivo.

If he’s feeling burdened by the situation, you wouldn’t know it. He had a strong game on Friday – making his presence felt on the forecheck and generally keeping the ice tilted towards the Sabres end while skating alongside Connor Brown and Miro Aaltonen at Ricoh Coliseum.

It was a good response for that trio – and the team in general – following a sluggish pre-season opener in Ottawa on Monday night.

“I thought Leivo was better,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “Leivs and I talked before: I mean he didn’t skate at all the previous game, he was in mud. But so was Brownie and so was Aalts. Those guys were all good tonight, they’re going to be real good players for us.

“That was good to see.”

Afterwards, Leivo flashed his gap-toothed grin while detailing what a positive summer it had been. The message coming out of his exit meeting last season was to get stronger and continue working on his skating, and he felt he took positive strides thanks to good health.

The Leafs kept close tabs on him by checking in regularly on his progress.

In many ways, he’s in an ideal position to show his best during this camp – a long way from where he was last fall when hip issues limited him significantly.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t fall in his favour. The top three lines are carved in stone and Brown is a lock to be the 10th forward. That leaves two or three open spots at the position – only two of which will dress in a healthy lineup.

Matt Martin has the inside track after playing all 82 games last season. Then there’s Aaltonen, Dominic Moore, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, Andreas Johnsson, Eric Fehr … heck even 19-year-old Carl Grundstrom has shown well so far.

As a result, the stakes will be high for Leivo whenever he gets to play before the final cuts are made. There are five exhibition games over a seven-day stretch remaining.

“I think it just pushes you a little harder to know that you can’t make too many mistakes,” he said. “It makes you play a solid game and play better defensively. I think if you just stay with it, it’ll come.”

There is one other potential option remaining here, even if it’s one Leivo doesn’t want to consider.

The scouts are watching as closely as Babcock and Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello these days. His opportunity could come somewhere else if Toronto is able to make a trade to ease the pressure on its crowded roster.

“Potentially, it could be that,” Leivo conceded. “But I’m here focused on making this team. I want to play here. It’s fun to play with these guys.”

If only it weren’t so difficult to get in the lineup.