What Leivo means to Maple Leafs youth movement

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock discusses what the team will do without an injured James van Riemsdyk, including who may step up in his absence.

TORONTO — The Marlies are bulldozing their way through the American Hockey League while the Maple Leafs have spent the season languishing in or near the Atlantic Division basement.

Yet the opportunities for NHL promotion have been few and far between, especially for younger skaters.

So it was notable to see 22-year-old winger Josh Leivo recalled Monday after James van Riemsdyk suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left foot that could keep him out as long as two months.

The Maple Leafs have gone to great pains not to rush the development of their kids this season. During the handful of times they previously needed a forward it was Byron Froese, Rich Clune or Mark Arcobello getting the call.

Leivo earned the nod this time around after a productive first half of the season that included points in each of his last five games.

“We talk to (Marlies officials) every day and we talk about who’s playing good, and he’s the guy they identified as playing the best,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He’ll get an opportunity and we’ll see how he goes.”

Leivo has put up fairly good offensive numbers in three AHL seasons, but remains an unknown quantity at the NHL level. He’s appeared in 16 games for the Leafs during a couple previous call-ups — scoring two goals and an assist while being deployed almost exclusively as a fourth-liner.

It’s hard to judge anyone on a body of work that includes a six-shift game and 10 others where he played fewer than 10 minutes.

In order to be more effective now he’ll need to earn a bigger opportunity in his first NHL stint under Babcock. He’s thrilled just to have the chance after waiting nearly a year for this recall.

“You’ve just got to be patient,” said Leivo. “You can’t get too excited or too disappointed. It’s a long season.”

One of the factors working in Leivo’s favour is that he can be returned to the Marlies without being subjected to waivers. The recently acquired Jeremy Morin, for example, cannot.

In the larger picture, his callup seems to signal more of a willingness from management to try out younger players at the NHL level. That is a trend worth monitoring as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches and the Leafs start to sell off their veteran guys on expiring contracts.

Had William Nylander not been injured at the recent world junior tournament — he still hasn’t resumed skating — there would be a strong possibility he got a look with the NHL club. Depending on his recovery he still might.

There are bound to be opportunities for others as well.

In the meantime, Leivo will look to build on his previous experience and make a positive impression.

“I’ve played in this league a little bit before,” he said. “So I’m a little bit used to it — I know it’s a little tougher than the AHL — but I’ve got to come out here and work hard. They know I can play here, that’s why they called me up.”

Many, including Babcock, entered the season believing that Toronto would have trouble scoring goals. But it hasn’t been quite as bad as expected, with the Leafs tied for 17th league-wide entering play Monday at 2.5 goals per game.

One of the biggest contributors was van Riemsdyk — with 14 goals and a team-best 29 points — so it would only stand to reason that the Leafs are bound to go through some offensive struggles in his absence.

“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” said Babcock. “The other way of looking at it is there’s a real good opportunity for someone. So that’s how I’d look at it.

“There’s no sense in talking about the guys that aren’t here; let’s talk about the guys that are here and let’s get to work.”

First up is Leivo. Others are sure to follow.

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