Shortly after the Canucks lost one left winger in his 20’s to waivers, they gained another.
As Jay Beagle nears a return, the Canucks needed to make a roster move to make room for him and Brendan Leipsic found himself the odd man out. He was put on waivers on Sunday, then claimed by the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. Shortly after that news broke, the Canucks announced that they had acquired Josh Leivo from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Utica Comets forward Michael Carcone.
It was a busy 24 hours for the Canucks and one more move is likely. Leipsic’s departure no longer makes room for Beagle, but instead makes room for Leivo. If Beagle is ready to play on Tuesday, as seems to be the case, the Canucks will need to move one more player from the active roster.
Likewise, the Leafs needed to move a player from their active roster with William Nylander nearing a return — though Beagle and Nylander are obviously not the same caliber of player — which is why Leivo was available in the first place.
It was reported that Jim Benning made the first move, contacting Kyle Dubas, GM of the Leafs, on Monday morning to inquire about Leivo. It’s a savvy move that seems to be a win-win-win scenario, with the Canucks, Leafs, and Leivo himself all getting something out of the move.
The Canucks get a player with plenty of potential, who has yet to fully realize that potential at the NHL level. Leivo has shown flashes of being a top-six forward, particularly in 2016-17 when he had 10 points in 13 games while playing mainly with Nazem Kadri.
More recently, Leivo has been pushed down the lineup, mainly playing on the fourth line. With his size, however, he’s been able to carve out a depth role, which gives him some versatility in Vancouver.
“In Toronto, they have a lot of depth and they have a lot of good players and with us I think he’s going to get an opportunity to play in our top nine, possibly our top two lines,” said Benning on Monday. “He’s a guy that is smart, he’s got good offensive instincts, he’s got, we think, a real good release on his shot. He’s a right shot player that likes playing the left side.”
Beyond his occasional pops of scoring, Leivo’s underlying numbers look very strong. His shot-based metrics — corsi, fenwick, and scoring chances — have been positive relative to his teammates almost every time he’s been given an opportunity to play, but this is the first time he’s played more than 16 games in a season.
That might be considered a red flag for a 25-year-old winger, that he never got a longer look in the NHL, but it’s hard to find what that red flag might be signifying. Micah Blake McCurdy, using his Threat metric that adjusts for linemates, opposition, and usage, sees plenty to like about Leivo: the Leafs got plenty of shots from great scoring areas with him on the ice and prevented the same in their own zone.
Once you account for teammates, opponents, score, and zone deployment, Josh Leivo has looked extremely good for Toronto. pic.twitter.com/gzLc6mCvMn— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) December 3, 2018
In many ways, this seems like a great gamble for the Canucks, similar to the trade for Leipsic last season: they moved an AHL player that might have some upside and acquired an NHL player that still has the potential to break through into a top-six role.
That’s the win for Leivo: in Vancouver he’ll get ice time that simply wasn’t available in Toronto.
“I talked to him this morning about the opportunity to play higher in the lineup,” said Benning. While he noted that where Leivo plays will be up to head coach Travis Green, he sees an opportunity for Leivo to play on an offensive-minded line.
“I think whether it’s with Bo [Horvat] or with [Elias] Pettersson, he’s a candidate to play with either one of those guys,” he said. “He’s a big body guy, he likes to get in front of the net and screen the goalie, get rebounds, so I think he’ll help us.”
Leivo has to be champing at the bit for a chance to play with Horvat or Pettersson, and he has the right physical and mental attributes to play with either of them. It’s an opportunity that wasn’t going to be afforded him with the Leafs, who simply have too much depth on the wings.
It’s also potentially a win for Horvat, who has lacked skilled, offensive-minded wingers for most of this season, though that was partly out of necessity. Green noted that injuries forced Horvat to play in more of a match-up role against tough competition, meaning he needed more defensively-capable wingers. Perhaps Leivo, with his size and solid underlying defensive numbers, would be a winger that could play with Horvat in that checking role, while still providing some offensive upside.
As for the Leafs, they win by not losing a player for nothing on waivers, as their waiver-exempt players were not candidates to take out of the lineup. If Leivo went on waivers, he was sure to be claimed, much like Leipsic was claimed earlier in the day.
Instead they add a younger player to their system in Michael Carcone, who has yet to play a game in the NHL, but has 17 points in 20 AHL games this season. The 22-year-old, once a Canucks camp invitee, was starting to attract some attention with his improved offensive play, though the NHL is still a long shot.
“He’s played good down there for us this year, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s hard to knock off the puck, he’s got courage to go to the hard areas of the ice,” said Benning. “We had talked about, at certain times, even this year, calling him up and giving him a chance, so, for him, he gets a fresh start.”
“He’s an offensive-minded guy, he’s quick,” said Travis Green, then echoed Benning: “We’d been talking about him lately up here, I think he’s starting to put it together, and I wish him all the best of luck, because I like Carc.”
Now the question is, for the Canucks, whether Leivo is a significant upgrade on Leipsic. The underlying analytics suggest that he is, and he provides more size, strength, and straightforwardness as opposed to Leipsic’s smaller size and more elusive style.
At the same time, they’ve produced at a nearly identical rate in the NHL. Leipsic has 30 points in 81 games, while Leivo has 28 points in 84 games. It’s a good bet for Benning to make, but there’s no certainty that Leivo can be a difference-maker for the Canucks.