Josh Leivo’s not leaving.
The Canucks have bid farewell to several other restricted free agents — Ben Hutton, Markus Granlund, Derrick Pouliot, Brendan Gaunce, and Yan-Pavel Laplante — but are bringing back Leivo on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
Leivo came over to the Canucks mid-season in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with Michael Carcone going the other way. It was a savvy move from Jim Benning, as the Leafs were in a bind with William Nylander returning to the lineup and had to move a player out. Carcone was a small price to pay to add a proven NHL forward like Leivo.
Leivo immediately clicked with the Canucks, scoring four goals in his first nine games, but had a series of dry spells throughout the rest of the season. He finished with 10 goals and 18 points in 49 games with the Canucks after the trade, giving him a total of 14 goals and 24 points over 76 games.
Even without the points, however, he made his linemates better with his play away from the puck, both offensively and defensively. The question for Leivo is how much more he can give.
Can Leivo be a regular top-six forward, putting up points with Elias Pettersson or Bo Horvat? Or is he more of a two-way third-line winger, occasionally capable of providing some secondary scoring?
Leivo has seemed on the verge of a breakout season for most of his professional career. His strong numbers in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies always suggested he was a player that deserved a longer NHL look, but he had trouble sticking in the NHL with the Leafs. It was difficult to understand why.
He had 5 goals in 12 games in 2015-16, while putting up 48 points in 51 games in the AHL. It’s hard to argue that Leivo wasn’t good enough to be in the Leafs’ lineup. He was a healthy scratch for much of the 2016-17 season with the Leafs, but when he was in the lineup, he had 10 points in 13 games.
In the 2017-18 season, he barely got in the lineup and, when he did, he was on the fourth line. He still had 4 points in 16 games, decent production for his limited ice time. Despite getting protected in the Vegas expansion draft, he just couldn’t stay in the lineup. There seemed to be a disconnect between how management viewed Leivo and how the coaching staff viewed him.
Part of the problem in Toronto is that the Leafs have a bevy of talented young wingers that prevented Leivo from playing further up the lineup. His offensive skill set, meanwhile, made him a poor fit for the fourth line on a Mike Babcock-coached team. That’s less of a problem in Vancouver, where Leivo had more offensive opportunity: his primary linemates with the Canucks were Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Despite his age — he turned 26 this year — last season was really Leivo’s first full season in the NHL. His seasons before that were spent mostly in the AHL or the press box. Perhaps with more certainty heading into the 2018-19 season, Leivo can finally break through.
His underlying statistics certainly paint a picture of a top-six winger, who can drive possession for talented linemates.
We can look at Leivo’s statistics in the same way we looked at Tyler Motte’s after he re-signed with the Canucks. Obviously the two players played very different roles, but even considering those roles, Leivo looks like a far more valuable player, whose cap hit of $1.5 million is very reasonable.
The statistics show Leivo’s rank among the 16 Canucks forwards that played at least 200 5-on-5 minutes last season, except for the power play statistics, which are ranked among the 10 Canucks forwards that played at least 40 power play minutes.
What immediately jumps out is that Leivo led the Canucks in multiple categories. He was on the ice for the lowest rate of shot attempts against and the highest rate of shot attempts for: accordingly, he led the Canucks in corsi percentage.
It wasn’t just shot attempts, however: the quality of those shot attempts also reflects well on Leivo, as shown by his team-leading expected goals percentage. And those excellent underlying numbers turned into actual results: he led the team in goals-for percentage.
In other words, when Leivo was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks out-shot, out-chanced, and out-scored their opposition better than with any other Canucks forward.
That didn’t always result in goals and assists for himself. Instead, his strong defensive play and work along the boards led to better puck possession and his positioning in the offensive zone opened up shooting and passing lanes for his linemates. He did a lot of the unheralded work that makes a line better.
On the power play, however, Leivo was just middle-of-the-road. He has a very good shot, but lacks offensive creativity, which limits him with the man advantage. That said, he was primarily on the second power play unit, which saw limited opportunities, so perhaps there’s a little more to give there.
All of these excellent numbers are reflected in Leivo’s heatmap from Hockey Viz. This three-year chart adjusts for contextual factors like linemates, competition, and zone starts.
You can see Leivo’s impact at both ends of the ice. When he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, his team gets a wealth of shots from the middle of the ice, particularly between the hashmarks, while limiting the same kinds of shots for the opposition. In numerical terms, his team creates shots that are 9% more dangerous than average and allows shots 8% less dangerous than average.
For those unfamiliar with these heatmaps, those are excellent numbers. It also paints a rosier picture of his work on the power play.
Leivo’s underlying numbers certainly make him look like a player on the verge of a breakout, but some cautionary notes: the addition of J.T. Miller adds more competition on the left side, with Miller likely to start the season alongside Pettersson and Boeser. Tanner Pearson and Sven Baertschi seem like safe bets to start the season on the second line with Bo Horvat.
That means Leivo is likely to start the season on the third line, centred by either Adam Gaudette or Brandon Sutter. That will limit his ability to put up points.
If and when injuries strike, however, Leivo is a safe bet to move up the lineup, particularly given head coach Travis Green’s appreciation for what players do away from the puck. It doesn’t seem crazy to expect 20 goals from Leivo this season.
That’s where Leivo’s contract becomes interesting. At the end of his one-year contract, Leivo will be an unrestricted free agent. A big season could drive up his asking price in free agency.
Given Leivo’s excellent underlying numbers, perhaps a longer-term deal would have been a smart gamble. The contract projections from Evolving Hockey suggested a three-year deal worth a little over $1.9 million per year for Leivo. That kind of contract could have proved to be a great deal with Leivo does break out next season.
That said, a $1.5 million cap hit for his upcoming season does make it a bit easier to fit the Canucks’ remaining restricted free agents, Nikolay Goldobin and Brock Boeser, under the salary cap.
Leivo will be an intriguing player to watch next season, as he enters a season with a solid roster spot for the first time in his career.