Everything is new here at the top. Shiny and new, I might add. If there’s anything around not new then it’s been coined “reset”. We should account for the rentals as well, I suppose. They are temporary. No, in all seriousness, the shift in front office personnel for the old Maple Leaf has certainly brought with it stern winds of change, leaving an empty field to farm. Gale force gusts as strong as the ones that swept through on April 12th, 2015 (Brendan Shanahan’s version of Leafs “D-Day”- Coach, GM, and about 85% of scouting department all fired) should make for no surprise many Leafs were, or more appropriately will be, blown to the curb. Development within is paramount now in the hockey hotbed of Toronto, something the fan base isn’t necessarily accustomed to. The premium put on “growing our own” has the management team setting themselves up to do exactly that. It looks as though Mark Hunter and company are on a mandate to sculpt the franchise depth not with draft picks and prospects of a previous regime, but to apply the phrase “grow your own” quite literally. Toronto made nine selections at last year’s NHL Entry Draft and intend on going to the table at least that many times in 2016. An influx of new must be reciprocated with an outflux of old.
You need not look any further than the unorthodox deal that acquired Michael Grabner. Five prospects were sent to the Islanders in one fell swoop. Common theme amongst the departed is that none were drafted by Mark Hunter, albeit he’s only been here one go around. Nevertheless, for the most part, all parties were free of fingerprints from the current front office. None of Gibson, Nilsson, Verhaeghe, or Finn, were chosen or acquired since Dubas or Shanahan have been in the picture. Taylor Beck was brought on via trade, but was not a move approved by the current General Manager, Lou Lamoriello. A decision was made to severe ties with several bodies and I’m sure the trend will continue. The Maple Leafs are growing their team from the ground up, with their own seeds.
If you read the roster page of the Toronto Marlies, there is just a foolish amount of high end AHL talent (including AAAA players like Arcobello, Brennan, Panik) with more soon on the way. The depth chart has not showcased such potential in…well maybe never. Players like Nylander, Kapanen, Soshnikov, Valiev, Hyman these are the names of tomorrow’s Leafs. This isn’t to say that despite the team’s intention on doing their own grocery shopping to stock the cupboards with personal preferences, there aren’t a few exceptions. Connor Brown, a 6th round pick of the previous group, has a spot in pencil on the 2016/17 line up. Garrett Sparks is cementing himself in the crease and the grand scheme as he continues to improve on his craft. Freddy “The Goat” may not fit in the “draft skill, trade for size” mantra Kyle Dubas has eluded to. At the same time he’s garnered the praise of his coaches and Dubas has also stated that everyone on your squad can’t be the same. Gauthier seems to be in the future plans as that big, responsible centre. So are there any other pre-planted seeds who’ve formed strong enough roots to survive the winds of change?
I have two particular members of the organization whose fate intrigue me for different reasons I’ll mention as we go. The intrigue lies in where they were and the curiosity of where they are heading. What does the future hold for these young men once coveted (and possibly still) by management, now in a somewhat degree of limbo? Will they be brushed aside in the next stiff breeze to find an NHL home elsewhere, or is their recent play earning a longer look and a prominent role going forward? If the season plays out as expected there will be jobs available with the big club after the deadline, or even before. Will opportunity knock for a pair of youthful veterans of the Toronto Marlies, hoping to make their mark with a new braintrust?
In Part One of this two part story, the focus will be on a young forward that not only wants to stick around the city, but to upgrade into the penthouse known as the ACC.
Back in 2013, I attended Toronto’s Rookie camp in London in my first work “on the job” or “on site,” as I started to write these blogs about the Maple Leafs. A prospect stood out above the rest that weekend, with his size, his skill, and his overall ceiling.He truly looked like the best player in his color uniform. I remember noting his ability to make plays in traffic, handle life along the boards and most of all, to finish.The name on the back of his jersey read: “Leivo.” I was an instant fan. After the series of games, I so did boldly project the third round pick of the 2011 draft to turn into a top-nine winger who could very well score in the ballpark of 20 goals a season in the NHL. I was especially confident after Leivo finished his rookie campaign for the Toronto Marlies with 23 goals in 59 games. A difficult task in a tough league for a 20 year old to light the lamp so frequently (not everyone is Willy). In limited action with the Maple Leafs, Leivo didn’t necessarily produce but certainly gave the impression he’d be heard from again on the grand stage.
Then, call it a sophomore slump or a simple step back, the script started to rewrite itself and my lofty prediction was in serious jeopardy. A disappointing 11 goal campaign in year 2, a shoulder injury, and just a general drop off the map in terms, Leivo found himself not amongst the top prospects talked about in camp. Instead he was somewhere in middling territory, heading into the last year of his entry level contract, likely uncertain of the road ahead as a future Maple Leaf. The 22 year old Innisfil, Ontario native would be take another punch, as he was cut from the big club relatively early in camp. Furthering speculation Leivo would find the same fate some of the other “Nonis prospects” had felt. The odds only seemingly increased when Leivo began the season on the Marlies 4th line. The writing was on the wall that his time here may have quickly ran its course. Well, here we are in late November and “Not so fast”. The script to Josh Leivo’s career tale may still have another rewrite.
Since the beginning of the season, a successful one to date, Leivo has climbed his way to the top of the lineup for his Toronto Marlies club. He has been a consistent producer with 14 pts in 15 games, while playing physical and responsible hockey. Leivo is providing leadership and bringing effort and size, night-after-night. This is what the player had to do to get back himself back on the radar and he’s doing it. I got the impression not only does he know what is expected of him, but that his confidence on the ice has returned. I spoke with Josh for a few minutes after Saturday’s win about setbacks and how he’s put himself back in the race to be the next call up to the Toronto Maple Leafs
Jude MacDonald: From what I’ve seen, it looks like you’re finding your “man strength” out there. Do you feel a little stronger compared to seasons past?
Josh Leivo: Yeah, for sure. As each year goes on you get smarter with the play and I know that I have to get bigger, at least stronger. This summer I really took it seriously and knew I had to gain some muscle because it’s a lot stronger league in the NHL. So I came prepared for it, I think ready for it, now I’m just waiting on that call.
JMD: After you first year of pro you were considered by many, myself included, to be one of Toronto’s top forward prospects. Last year you suffered somewhat of a setback. What would you attribute the drop off to? Injuries or something more?
JL: I think the pucks weren’t bouncing in the ways that they were the year before. I felt like I was still getting my chances, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I did get injured, I hurt my shoulder and missed six weeks, which set me back a bit. But I’d say it was just a tough year all around. I’m trying to learn from it, make the most out of it, and just bounce back this year. Summer was a hard work and preperation for me, now I just have to keep it going.
JMD: Now this year at camp it was a bit of an early send back for you. How did you take that and how have you managed to gain some momentum and put yourself in a good position to get that call you’re waiting for?
JL: I was let down a little bit, but I know it’s a business here and there was a lot of players in camp. I think I took in that I needed to work hard and bring my one hundred percent game and hopefully the day will come, but I have to keep working. I can’t focus on what management is going to do up there. I just have to leave it to the side, let things take care of themselves and play hockey. Luckily the work I put in is showing right now, the team is playing good hockey and hopefully the call comes sooner rather than later.
The group of wingers currently in Toronto will not be the group who finish the season. This is what we know. We all know the plan, and we all know there will be movement. So who will take those spots left vacated? Toronto has been clear they aren’t rushing anyone up and when they do come up they are here to stay. This ideology eliminates a few of the more popular names when discussing the topic of call-ups. If you asked me at the start of the regular season If I had thought Josh Leivo would fill one of those spots, I have to be honest. I would have said no. After watching him live and seeing his return to form, if I was asked that same question now?
Stay by the phone, Josh. The wind is at your back.
In Part Two, I spoke with a Marlies defender who finds himself in a similar situation, a Nonis draft pick finding his place in an organization with new management, Stuart Percy. Percy is being counted on in a top 4 role this season in the AHL and tells me you “just have to understand your process”.