MONTREAL – When Kari Leivo learned of his son’s one-year, $925,000 contract extension Friday afternoon through the media, he called Josh right away.
“He was screaming. Same thing as when I got drafted,” said Josh Leivo Saturday morning at Bell Centre. “All smile—ear to ear.”
Leivo looked a lot like the way he describes his dad — happy, relieved, excited — following another one of his prolonged morning game-day skates, the routine of the healthy scratch.
Keep positive. Put in the work. Patiently wait for your chance, then seize with verve when it finally arrives.
Josh Leivo’s wallet is thickening at a time when his HockeyDB page is thinning.
He squeezed into a mere 13 games for the Leafs (and five for the AHL Marlies) in 2016-17, but posted an impressive 10 points. Enough to earn him expansion-draft protection from GM Lou Lamoriello and sporadic “Free Leivo!” protests from Leafs Nation diehards.
This season the extra winger’s mission of cracking the dang lineup only got tougher with the summer addition of future Hall of Famer Patrick Marleau and the contractual call-up of Nikita Soshnikov.
Even with minor injuries to forwards Matt Martin, James van Riemsdyk and Auston Matthews, Leivo has just five games played, notching one assist. Coach Mike Babcock played him a two-season ice-time low of 9:35 in his most recent appearance, Saturday’s 4-1 win in Boston.
“I don’t think it’s gone as good for him this year as it did last year. He’s gotta get to work,” Babcock said. “When he gets his next opportunity, you gotta take someone’s job.”
Leivo says his raise came together quickly.
“We were just talking, and they just wanted me to have the security so I could play a game and not have to worry about the next year,” Leivo explained. “It feels great. I get to focus now on just playing.”
The message from Lamoriello was a simple one: Stick with it.
“He’s proud of me, how I work hard,” Leivo said. “He said, ‘It’s well earned.’”
From management’s perspective, signing Leivo means they won’t lose him as a Group VI unrestricted free agent, which would’ve been the case had he remained unsigned and not played 39 games this season. The extra year of control (and RFA status on July 1, 2019) also increases Leivo’s worth on the trade market, should Toronto elect to move him at some point.
From the player’s point of view, he just got guaranteed money and a job for 2018-19. That’s something fellow Leafs forwards Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, Dominic Moore, William Nylander, van Riemsdyk and Soshnikov don’t have, yet.
Frankly, the chances of Leivo — who can slide onto the second power-play unit — getting regular run next season in Toronto are better, especially if van Riemsdyk and/or Komarov chase dollars elsewhere.
“He’s a player that we like,” Babcock said. “So if you like a guy, why wouldn’t you [re-sign him]?”
Who knows what a 25-year-old with less than 50 NHL games experience and fewer than 10 goals would fetch on the open market? Leivo says he wasn’t tempted to find out.
“I like the security better,” Levio said. The GTA native clearly doesn’t just want to be an NHLer but a Toronto Maple Leaf. (Throw Connor Brown in that same boat.)
Leivo says he loves “everything” about belonging to this club.
“The atmosphere, the fans, the city’s great. Being from Richmond Hill and Innisfil, it’s really close to home, so it’s an awesome feeling, and I’m happy to have another year,” he said. “It’s kind of a fun room right now.”
Mitch Marner says Leivo is a fun-loving guy who jokes around in the dressing room. Van Riemsdyk has been impressed by the kid’s attitude through a series of benchings.
“I’m sure for him there’s those frustrations from being in and out of the lineup and wanting to be playing more, but he’s handled that very well,” van Riemsdyk said.
That means never venting those frustrations publicly, a sure ticket out of town.
That also means bag skates and weight-room sessions to improve his stride and strength.
Taking cues from Marlies forward Rich Clune, another guy who must work hard to remain a pro, Leivo was a gym rat this summer. During testing at camp, only Clune could dead-lift more than the six-foot-two, 210-pound Leivo.
“I can’t get too emotional,” Leivo said. “I just have to keep working hard. I think every game I’ve gotten into, I’ve done OK.”
Kari Leivo has a HockeyDB page, too. It’s one line long and includes one gaudy number: 493 penalty minutes in 42 games with the OJHL’s Richmond Hill Dynes in 1985-86.
“It’s a good stat for him,” Leivo smiled. “He used to be a fighter back in the day. I think I got the skill side out of him. I don’t think he wanted me doing that stuff, but I think I can hold my own.”