Maple Leafs prospect profile: Brendan Leipsic’s big October

Sportsnet writer Ryan Dixon caught up with Marlies forward Brendan Leipsic, who doesn't let his smallish size prevent him from mixing things up, and loves to keep the mood light on long team bus rides.

Persistence has long been a hallmark of Brendan Leipsic’s play, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that he’s finally licked one of his lingering adversaries: The month of October.

A self-described slow starter, Leipsic shed that label this year when he was named the American Hockey League’s first player of the month for 2016-17. With four goals and 15 points in 10 contests, the 22-year-old Toronto Marlies left winger is tied for the league scoring lead, something coach Sheldon Keefe believes to be rooted in a very basic fact.

“I think the first thing is, he’s a good player,” Keefe said of Leipsic’s blast out of the blocks.

That much has been apparent for most of Leipsic’s AHL career, which is now in its third season. Last year, he netted 20 goals and 54 points in 65 outings on a club featuring top-end forwards such as William Nylander, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. With those guys now repping the real Blue and White at Air Canada Centre, Leipsic has become a go-to offensive player.

“With that is a sense he’s relied upon and [that] we need him to be real good,” said Keefe.

The 5-foot-9 Winnipeg boy has lived up to expectations, while exhibiting some growth. Keefe says Leipsic—who plays on a line with centre Byron Froese and right winger Tobias Lindberg—has learned to pick his spots better, avoiding the turnovers that can quickly have a trio chasing the game instead of dictating the pace. Leipsic also believes doing the little things right is creating a snowball effect.

“To feel good about yourself on the scoresheet is one thing,” he said. “But I think I’ve been playing the right way without the puck and with the puck, and I think the points are starting to follow.”

Offence is what former Leafs GM Dave Nonis had in mind when he acquired Leipsic in a deal just before the 2015 trade deadline that sent defenceman Cody Franson to the Nashville Predators. Having spent his entire four-year Western Hockey League career with the Portland Winterhawks, Leipsic acknowledged it was a bit jarring to be moved in his first pro year. He adjusted quickly, though, and has long since come to appreciate being part of the Maple Leafs organization.

“It doesn’t really feel like you’re in the AHL when you’re in Toronto,” he said. “You’ve got all these resources and skill coaches and trainers. We get treated like we’re in the NHL.”

Playing in the world’s best league was a reality late last season for Leipsic, who put up an impressive 1-2-3 stat line in six games with the Buds. And while he may not be a full-time member of the Leafs yet, the 89th overall pick from 2012 has pushed his way onto clubs before. When he arrived in Portland at 16, the Winterhawks were a powerhouse with first-round NHL talents like Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi lighting up the WHL. To carve out a niche for himself, Leipsic unleashed his inner pest, demonstrating a willingness—maybe even a happiness—to play physically despite his small stature. It’s a dimension he still glimpses today.

“He likes to stir it up,” says Keefe. “He wants the other team to be aware he’s out there, not just because he’s a good player but because he’s going to compete. He’s got all the necessary ingredients to be a guy who can play in the NHL at his size.”

Leipsic says he’s not preoccupied with when his big call may come. His focus is on earning the complete trust of his coach, knowing that will eventually waft up to the organization’s decision-makers.

“You just take it day by day and keep grinding,” he said.

And scoring, of course—regardless of what time of year it is.

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