TORONTO – Josh Leivo is about to cause a problem, albeit a good one to have.
After patiently waiting for a rink to explode on, the young, exciting, determined Toronto Maple Leafs right winger —no, not that one, the other one—has wowed since being promoted from black-ace purgatory to the top nine once Mitch Marner went down with an upper-body injury.
In the Leafs’ past five outings, three of them wins, the 23-year-old from Innisfil, Ont., has seven assists and eight points. Slotting to the east of Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri on the home-ice shutdown line, Leivo was the best forward on a rink full of Calder threats in the first half of Tuesday’s Jets game, coach Mike Babcock said. He rewarded Leivo with time on the NHL’s best power play.
Frank Corrado burned his chance to crack Babcock’s roster after weeks in limbo. Alexey Marchenko will get his shot Thursday, in light of Connor Carrick’s injury.
These windows open with blinding, welcoming light and slam with dark finality. Ask Corrado. Or Brooks Laich. Or Jhonas Enroth. Or Milan Michalek. Or….
“You sit there, you sit there,” Babcock says.
“You can say anything you want about the coach under your breath, and you can do anything you want to get competitive as you want, but when you get your opportunity in life, if you prepare for your opportunity, you often make good on your opportunity.”
That Leivo’s done. Until Marner went down, the AHL-NHL ’tweener had dressed just once in December and once in January for the Leafs and played a scant five games for the AHL Marlies.
“My conditioning is up,” Leivo says. Well, uh, yeah, it better be.
The message from above was simple: Stick with it. Work hard. When you get your chance, pounce.
Carrick, probably the roster’s greatest orator of hockey’s psychological side, knows Leivo’s situation well.
“It’s extremely taxing. I think the best mental approach is to pick out certain things on certain practice days that you really want to work on and you set your own goals, because you don’t get the measuring stick of game play,” Carrick explains.
“When you’re out of the lineup, you get that feeling of, Maybe it doesn’t matter how I practice. Maybe I don’t matter to the team. Those are toxic. You’ve got to get rid of those. You’ve got to stay dialled in.
“There’s going to be waivers. There are days you’re bummed out and it’s starting to weigh on you. To me, the most fun in hockey is when you’re feeling good. You’re stickhandling well, you’re shooting well. Those are the things you can focus on when you’re out of the lineup. That feel.”
A fourth-year pro, this is the first season Carrick hasn’t spent time in the AHL. He’d think about successful players he knew who endured tough stretches. He’d rationalize that they don’t pay you for the good times, they pay you for the tough ones. He’d lean on encouragement from Mom and Dad or the coaching staff or a kid fan saying, “I think you’re great.”
“You don’t want to prove the little kid wrong,” Carrick explains. “You draw motivation every way you can take it.
“They kept him up here in the NHL for a reason. The organization obviously feels he’s a good player,” Carrick goes on. “I’m sure he’d love to have played more hockey this year… but he’s been extremely positive and worked hard. All those clichéd things are more difficult when you’re in and out of the lineup.”
Motivated, he says, by pure love of the game, Leivo busted his rear in the off-season. Funny and well-liked in the room, he says everyone on the team who’s been in his situation has kept an eye out for him, offering an encouraging word. Now that things are coming up Josh, he’s having a blast. Family and friends are buzzing his phone with happy messages.
“It was just a matter of getting in. I understood the situation. When the team’s doing well, you don’t want to switch anything. I waited. I was patient. I was just happy that it’s working out right now.”
Leivo was a third-round pickup in 2011. This marks his fourth year in the NHL, and he’s never played more than a dozen games in a single season. He scored five goals as a Leaf playing less meaningful games last season, but he’s never looked so comfortable.
“A difference maker,” Jake Gardiner calls the kid.
“All he needed was a bit of confidence for a couple of shots to drop for him or a couple of bounces to go his way,” says Kadri. “I like where his game is at. He’s really effective, especially down low.”
Babcock: “Coaches aren’t that smart sometimes. Eventually we catch on to who are the best players.”
Now for the problem.
Leivo replaced William Nylander on the Kadri line. Nylander has flourished since shifting to Auston Matthews’ flank, a move that bumped Connor Brown to Marner’s old spot beside Tyler Bozak.
“It shows we have a lot of depth,” Leivo says. “Some lines connect a lot more than others, and Babs notices it and he’ll switch it up if he thinks it’s not rolling. Our line has been doing well the last couple games.”
Babcock sees Leivo as a fit on the Kadri line because he’s more of a cycle player, a fierce puck retriever with a “sneaky” stick-lift (Leivo’s word) that catches D-men napping. Nylander is a natural rush player, plainly experiencing a creative jolt alongside buddy Matthews.
A healthy Marner must return to his comfort zone as the engine driving the JVR-Bozak line, right?
So where does that leave Brown, a Babcock favourite? Does fourth-line energy guy Nikita Soshnikov become the new odd man out?
(About Marner’s health: The coach and player are ready for a return but need medical approval. “We wondered how that science project was going,” Babcock said Thursday. “We went into that room and asked a few questions but we didn’t get any good answers.”)
The flooded right ride — RW Kasperi Kapanen is a point a game with the Marlies, by the way — is the result of excellent, if lopsided, drafting. Eventually, this must lead to a trade, right? (And, no, this is not a Nylander thing, so save your conspiracies.)
“I bug [Mark Hunter] all the time. He was a right winger. He loves a good right winger,” Babcock says. “I like centres and Ds, so we gotta get that changed over time.”
In the near term, however, it can’t mean taking a determined and fiery Leivo out of the lineup, can it?
“No clue. Babs makes the lineup the day of, so we’ll see,” Leivo says.
“Whoever’s not working hard, it will show. Babs wants you working hard. I think for everyone it’s a tryout.”