TORONTO — Forward Josh Leivo is trying to crack the Maple Leafs opening-night lineup out of training camp for the third time, and it’s not getting any easier.
The 24-year-old made the Leafs’ roster last fall for the first time, but was a healthy scratch on opening night and didn’t dress until Dec. 19. The signing of winger Matt Martin in the summer along with some emerging rookies pushed him to the press box.
This off-season the Leafs added another veteran winger in Patrick Marleau and it’s stacked the odds against Leivo even more to be on the ice Oct. 4 when Toronto opens its season in Winnipeg against the Jets.
"There’s no breathing room for positions, it’s definitely the hardest camp I’ve been at," Leivo said on Friday after practice. "Hopefully I can crack a spot."
The 2016-17 season was a complex one for Leivo.
He played in only 13 games with the Leafs last season, producing two goals and 10 points in a limited role, and dressed in just five more games with the American Hockey League’s Marlies. Those games came on a conditioning stint for an undisclosed injury in November after watching the Leafs play for an entire month. He suited up in four games in total in the first four months of the NHL campaign until finally getting into the lineup consistently in February only to have health derail the rest of the year for him in March.
"Of course you always want to be out there and playing the game you grew up playing, at times it was tough, but the vibes in the room, and positivity from last year kind of made it easier."
Leivo also had to clear waivers for the first time last year to be loaned to the Marlies and the team didn’t want to take the risk and lose him to another organization. That left him as the Leafs’ 13th forward for most of the year instead of playing full time in an important role in the AHL.
Barring a trade, Leafs coach Mike Babcock hinted that when he finalizes his roster this time round, Leivo may find himself in the same situation as last year — too valuable to be given up for nothing but not important enough to be in the lineup.
"We’ve tried to make it as competitive as possible….up front we’re trying to figure it out," said Babcock.
"One thing with how the league works, some guys can go through waivers, some guys don’t. Sometimes that just makes it easier to make decisions while you figure out what you really need to do."
Despite having a good showing, Kasperi Kapanen could find himself back on the Marlies because he is exempt from waivers and easy to demote. Two off-season signings — Dominic Moore and Miro Aaltonen — are vying for fourth-line centre. Moore, though, is a veteran while the 24-year-old Finn is on an entry-level deal and doesn’t need waivers to be sent down to the minors.
Leivo played 161 games over three seasons with the Marlies, attempting to make himself as versatile as possible to fit the Leafs lineup. He started on the right side, learned to play the left after being transitioned in his sophomore year, before eventually lining up at times as a centreman.
At this point, he has no preference where he plays as long as he doesn’t have to keep watching.
"Ideally I’d just love to get in, I think I can play any line, any position," said Leivo.
The majority of the spots on the Leafs are spoken for, with the battles going on in the bottom of the lineup. Leivo will dress for Toronto’s final exhibition game Saturday against Detroit.
Babcock has until Tuesday to finalize his 23-man roster.